Last Tuesday, political science associate professor Larycia Hawkins was placed on administrative leave by Wheaton College for posting the following message on Facebook:
I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.
It was the last clause that prompted the suspension. Wheaton is an evangelical Christian school, and evangelical Christians don’t believe that they share a God with Muslims. As Hawkins herself observed, Catholics do. Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document stating as much, goes on to acknowledge Muslims’ reverence for Mary. As long as Hawkins remains at loose ends, she might want to pop into a daily Mass or two – who knows where the Spirit might lead her?
But in joining Christians and Muslims together as “people of the book,” Hawkins went too far, even by Catholic standards. “People of the Book” – in Arabic, ′Ahl al-Kitāb – is an Islamic term for monotheists, including Christians and Jews, who follow religions revealed by the prophets preceding Muhammad. Even Christians inclined to credit Muslims with worshipping the God of Abraham would find little meaning in the term. We define ourselves chiefly through our belief in Jesus, the Word made flesh, Scripture taking second place.
Suspension seems like a pretty harsh penalty, but Wheaton has an established tradition of punishing faculty for breaches of faith and morals. Professors aren’t awarded tenure by accident; Hawkins must have known the school’s policies and approved of them, at least broadly. My point isn’t to plead her case to the school, or for that matter the school’s case to her, but to explore how, exactly, a Christian intellectual could have come to use that kind of language.
In Hawkins’ case, it doesn’t seem to have been anything so simple as an oversight. She’s proven she’s not one to leave meaning to chance. She’d already committed to wearing a hijab throughout Advent in order to show “embodied solidarity” with Muslims experiencing Islamophobia. Before taking up the project, The Atlantic reports, she had “approached the Council on American Islamic Relations for input, asking whether a non-Muslim wearing the hijab was patronizing, offensive, or forbidden.” In other words, when it touched on questions of power, status, and cultural appropriation, she was willing to do her due diligence to find out whether a given expression of faith was proper.
Since Hawkins is a political scientist, it may be inevitable that she thinks primarily in those terms. Since she’s the first African-American woman to win tenure at Wheaton, it may be inevitable that she sees Muslims primarily as fellow disadvantaged and imperiled minorities. Compassion and sympathy are wonderful tools to bring to interfaith relations, but over-identifying with the people in the opposing camp is not, particularly when it leads to error.
Earlier in the year, when former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal was exposed as a white woman, I argued that striving to gain the perspective of the outsider is a risky project. As both T.E. Lawrence and Black Like Me author John Howard Griffin discovered, it has a mystical side. It can displace a person from her own perspective. In interreligious dialogue, where presenting its own side is precisely the goal of every party, trying to embody both sides at once, as Hawkins seems to be doing, tends to defeat the purpose.
Am I stretching the comparison by leaguing Hawkins and her hijab with Lawrence in his dishdasha and Griffin in his darkened skin? Maybe, but there is evidence to support it. While speaking of wanting to “live out my [Christian] faith…surrounded by my neighbor, who is Muslim,” Hawkins is forgetting her own theology and adopting Muslim jargon.
Hawkins is of course right that love of neighbor for God’s sake is exactly what Christian charity demands. Moreover, the Gospels define “neighbor” in the broadest possible way – so far, so good. But since her goal as she defines it is to testify to “the love I have for Jesus and the love I believe he has for all the people of the world,” it’s worth asking whether Muslims who see her draped and hear her speak really get this.
Slate’s article on the subject leaves lots of room to doubt that they do. Only one of the sources, Republican Muslim Coalition founder Saba Ahmed, alluded to the Christian content of Hawkins’ gestures. For the others, what mattered was whether wearing a hijab really did enable Hawkins to experience the worst of Islamophobia, or whether it amounted to a form of “tourism.” They rated it, in other words, exactly as they would have done any other form of campus activism.
Just to be clear, Wheaton didn’t suspend Hawkins for wearing a hijab, and I have no objection to it per se, though it seems to me unnecessary. The best way to fight Islamophobia is to explode panicky or malicious half-truths and overgeneralizations about Muslims – something anyone can do bareheaded or in a beanie. As a form of Christian witness, adopting Islamic dress tends to be distracting. If it didn’t actually confuse Hawkins, it seems to express a naïve xenophilia that has nothing to do with Christianity. Nobody who truly believes that her neighbors are fellow creatures of God need go to extraordinary lengths to find common ground.