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It's Not the Arches!

Matt and I agree on one point: Uncle Ezra would be proud to hear that Cornell was described by The New York Times as one of a few "oases of tolerance" among colleges dealing with rising tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslim students. As much as I'd like to credit this welcome news to a temporary exhibition of administrative self-indulgence, I don't think the Big Red Arches did any more to foster a civil atmosphere among Cornell's Muslims than last year's dragon. My question is this: Why was Cornell in particular singled out? What about Cornell, as opposed to other prestigious and similar-sized institutions, makes it less susceptible to sectarian tensions? Why do Michigan, Johns Hopkins and Rutgers have issues where Cornell and Georgetown don't?

The Times story itself does nothing to clarify these issues, incidentally. The graf mentioning Cornell is a throwaway, cites no sources, and is written in a weird passive voice that makes me wonder if the reporter was trying to duck accountability for the statement: "Not all campuses have been affected. Some, like Georgetown University and Cornell University, were considered oases of tolerance." (They "were" considered thus? Well, what about "now"?)

I asked Shaan Rizvi '07, president of the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association (MECA) at Cornell, why this might be the case. Over e-mail, he told me: "If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that most Muslim students at Cornell -- just like all Cornell students -- are pretty well-informed and educated people. With education and information comes greater tolerance, and that's what we've seen for the most part in the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association at Cornell."

I'd agree that being well-educated is an obvious and necessary component to any tolerant student body, but that doesn't necessarily explain why Cornell is attracting (or producing) more tolerant students than other comparable schools. And some very educated men, like Osama bin Laden, don't necessarily follow the path of tolerance. I wouldn't be surprised if MECA itself has something to do with the civil atmosphere at Cornell. According to Facebook, Rizvi is Shia -- unusual for leaders of college Muslim organizations (and MECA) because the majority of Muslims in the world (and the U.S.) are Sunni. Rizvi's position seems to speak to the overall goodwill within the Muslim community at Cornell, and the efforts toward mutual dialogue made by MECA and its leadership. Ross Brann, the M. R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies, also indicated in an e-mail his high regard for MECA's exec board. I wouldn't really expect less from a student leader whose Facebook profile includes an interest in "interfaith" and a quote from Gandhi.

Of course, Cornell also has a long nonsectarian tradition that has sought not to marginalize non-Christian students. To top it off, constant debate -- within and between different student groups, public and private -- is the norm at our alma mater. Everything is fair game. I think this willingness to let issues be dissected and discussed might also be a factor in disagreements not necessarily leading to bitter disputes.

There are two other factors that are likely at work here, too. Cornell is isolated -- both from big population centers and from the winds of public whim and political sensitivity -- which can serve to foster a calmer discourse. And, Cornell's location means that it is not near any big Muslim communities, meaning baggage isn't necessarily being carried over to Ithaca. I'd guess that's part of the problem at the University of Michigan (Dearborn) and Rutgers (Jersey City, other suburbs).

N.B. -- I have sent a request to Anabel Taylor Hall for some rough numbers of Shia vs. Sunni students, on the theory that Cornell might have disproportionate numbers of one over the other, or that Cornell just might not have that many Muslim students to begin with. Maybe the low level of tension is simply a matter of campus demographics. But without a response so far, I can't make any assumptions at this point.

Andy Guess | Posted on February 07, 2007 (#)

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