Vanderbilt University hosts Project Dialogue every other year to open lines of communication on campus about a variety of topics.
However, an event held in late January seems to have inadvertently crossed a few wires in the process – especially for people getting their information not on campus, but online.
At a forum entitled "Common Ground: Being Muslim in the Military" on Jan. 25, Chaplain Awadh A. Binhazim responded to a question from student Devin Saucier, vice president of the V.U. chapter of conservative group Youth for Western Civilization, by saying he would have to "go with what Islam teaches" regarding the imposition of capital punishment on practicing homosexuals.
The video received thousands of hits on YouTube in the following days and Binhazim was at the center of backlash for his anti-gay (albeit unsurprising) point of view. Several Islamic countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, are known to have put people to death for homosexual activity.
The Reverend Gary White, interim director of Religious Life at Vanderbilt who helped organize the event, said, for students, the issue has come and gone, and the backlash over the comment has grown from misinformation on the internet.
"Dr. Binhazim was asked a very specific theological question and tried to give a more theoretical response, but the questioner seemed to be trying to get his own answer out of the question," White said. "Binhazim answered the theological question and I don’t think anyone in the room was surprised. That was it."
He said the question about homosexuality came from left field and was unrelated to the topic at hand.
Saucier admitted to attending the event with his own agenda in a Youth for Western Civilization blog entry on Jan. 27: “When I saw that the Muslim Students Association was hosting an event titled ‘Common Ground: Being Muslim in the Military,’ which was sponsored by the Project Dialogue committee, I knew it would be ripe grounds for me to expose the gullibility of leftists who grovel at the altars of tolerance and acceptance.”
White said the majority of the questions which followed were related to the fundamental principals of Islam and the intended topic of living out Muslim faith in the military.
"The particular question was the first one during the Q&A and was not particularly germane to the topic of the discussion," White said. "My perception from the audience was that he [Saucier] did his thing and now we can get back to the topic at hand. It was only remarkable in that it was unremarkable."
But for many other bloggers, local GLBT people and their straight allies the issue was far from moot.
The Monday evening following the discussion, Vanderbilt University released a statement noting that the event was part of its "Project Dialogue," a series meant to bring "diverse viewpoints" to campus.
"No view expressed at a Project Dialogue or similar campus forum should be construed as being endorsed by Vanderbilt," the statement said. "The university is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. It is the belief of the university community that free discussion of ideas can lead to resolution and reconciliation."
Off campus, however, flyers drawing attention to Binhazim’s anti-gay rhetoric were circulated last weekend by unknown sources in several of Nashville’s gay bars suggesting that people contact Vanderbilt to express their displeasure. Many gay-advocacy groups, including the Tennessee Equality Project, feared that angry phone calls to the university could be counterproductive.
"TEP doesn’t agree with angry activism," said TEP President H.G. Stovall.
The City Paper is one of the few local outlets to give attention to the story. However, dozens of blogs have picked up the YouTube video, including the popular site Queerty.com, which questions why the university hasn’t cut ties with Binhazim who’s opinions run counter to the university’s GLBT-inclusive policies.
The statement from V.U. went on to reaffirm the school’s commitment both to free speech and to non-discrimination.
"There has been some confusion as to Binhazim’s role at Vanderbilt," the statement concluded. "He is the Muslim chaplain at Vanderbilt, a volunteer position. He is not a professor of Islam and is not associated with Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He has adjunct associate professor status at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in pathology. This position, which carries no teaching or research responsibilities, is also unpaid."
Binhazim is employed as a professor of pathology at Meharry Medical College.
White said the students who participated in the event were able to leave with much of the information they came and for most people this has been a non-issue. Ironically, he said, the people basing their argument on a 3 1/2 minute YouTube clip are missing the entire point of Project Dialogue’s central topic of civility.
"Opinions are a dime a dozen," White said. "We as an institution are more about ideas. We believe in the power of those ideas and when we have places of rub and controversy, you’re not going to make much headway when you discuss opinions. You have to discuss ideas behind those opinions. What Binhazim expressed wasn’t an opinion, it was a theological ideal behind Islam. Our students have no reason to be afraid or fear him at all."