CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: A small controversy over how Harvard practices tolerance has been sparked by two issues relating to Muslim belief - whether the call to prayer should ring out across Harvard Yard and whether women should be granted separate gym hours.
Heated discussions have erupted on dormitory chat rooms, students said, while various opinion articles in the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, have denounced both practices.
"I think that because Harvard is a secular campus, there is a fear among some students that religious beliefs or practices might be imposed on people who don't want anything to do with them," said Jessa Birdsall, a sophomore who said she thought the university should accommodate the beliefs of all students.
The debate began in early February, when the undergraduate college restricted one of the three largest gyms on its main campus, the Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center, to women on Mondays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.
The college spokesman, Robert Mitchell, would not describe how the decision was reached, but various students said a small group of Muslim women undergraduates living in the Leverett House dormitory had asked for the change.
The group of women felt that workout clothes violated the Muslim prescription that both sexes wear appropriate dress in shared environments. So they asked the dormitory to set aside its minigyms for women a few hours each week. The request eventually made its way to the Harvard College Women's Center and it was decided that the Quadrangle center, which Mitchell called the college's least-used athletic facility, would be reserved for women at certain times.
He said the change was an experiment that would be evaluated in June.
The second controversy occurred after the adhan, or call to prayer, was once again broadcast across Harvard Yard at noon from the steps of the Widener Library for several days in late February. The broadcast was part of Islam Awareness Week, sponsored by the Muslim student club, the Harvard Islamic Society.
On March 13, an op-ed article by three graduate students denounced the practice, which has been going on for several years. They wrote that while pluralism was fine, the adhan espouses Muslim intolerance toward other faiths by stating that the Prophet Muhammad is the messenger of God. Calling it proselytizing, the op-ed article said, "The adhan, it seems, is the exception to Harvard's unspoken rule of religious tolerance and respect."