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Private Accommodations for Islam

by R. John Matthies
April 18, 2008


When is it appropriate to critique the policies of private enterprise? Private institutions are clearly permitted to carry out their business in a manner appropriate to their market, so long as they operate within the boundaries of the law. However, these institutions – commercial, educational, or the media – also play a major societal role, and hence carry great responsibility. For this reason, the practice of criticizing these institutions is an established tradition, as illustrated by book reviews, theater criticism, Hollywood gossip columns, sports talk, consumer reports, and others. Acknowledging that the critique of private institutions is different from the sort directed at government, we engage private sector entities in consideration of the influence they peddle and (indirect) power they wield.

There are now many cases of Islamists in the West demanding accommodations – and of these demands being met. These range from trivial cases of employee accommodation to cases of gender segregation. While state and local authorities have often bent to the designs of political Islam, it is to private institutions that one turns to examine the most egregious examples of accommodation.

Still, it is more difficult to censure private institutions – given their greater freedom of action – than it is to censure lawmakers and public institutions, which are directly charged with serving the public good. Private entities have the right to run their own affairs, but the public cannot condone exceptions that result in exclusion or promote a regime of segregation. Merchants are free to choose the services or products they offer to target consumers and hence maximize profit. But to deny service to one group – or create hardship for select employees – to accommodate the wishes of another is unacceptable. Those policies that dismiss the rights of others – whether in a place of work, study, or commerce – must not be tolerated. For this reason, it is fitting to explore cases of accommodation with an eye both to the exceptional nature of the concession (in light of existing practice) and the degree to which group accommodation results in restricted movement, hampered speech, or great inconvenience to the majority.

In the case of Britain's Sainsbury's convenience stores, for example, Muslim employees who prefer to avoid contact with alcoholic beverages for reason of religion are asked to raise their hands so a colleague can replace them at their post or scan the item for them. And those who object to stocking shelves with wine, beer, and spirits have found alternative positions within the company. A similar example is credited to Target, where Muslim employees at a Minneapolis store have been dispensed with handling pork products, for fear of contamination.

Sainsbury's and Target have elected to satisfy employee wishes; the pertinent question is whether management has enacted these policies because it feels it's the right thing to do, or simply because no other options exist to fill the positions presently occupied by recalcitrant employees. (A spokeswoman for Sainsbury's admits as much, saying: "At the application stage we ask the relevant questions regarding any issues about handling different products and where we can we will try and accommodate any requirements people have.") If the latter is the case, it is difficult to imagine what these vendors can do or what suggestions we might offer. And so we tolerate exceptions of this kind – with the caveat that one must guard against those accommodations that infringe upon the rights of others (and do not merely inconvenience).

Both state and federal law are clear that employers are obliged to accommodate employees' religious beliefs where these are "reasonable" and do not detract from profitability. But this test fails to account for the inconvenience brought upon employees, which goes to the heart of the fairness issue. At the same time, it is clear that inconvenience extends to paying customers, who are forced to wait while another is found to handle the transaction – to say nothing of the degrading sort of treatment to which the customer is subjected, who must appear to create a disturbance for wishing to purchase an "elicit" product. All told, these examples speak to the question of the degree to which Islam may be allowed to disengage from society.

At the same time, it is also unacceptable for private concerns to enforce Islamic space of their own accord. Consider Harvard University's decision to institute women-only gym hours to accommodate the modesty requirements of campus Muslims, for example. Islamic Knowledge Committee officer Ola Aljawhary says: "These hours are necessary because there is a segment of the Harvard female population that is not found in gyms not because they don't want to work out, but because for them working out in a co-ed gym is uncomfortable, awkward or problematic in some way." But Harvard administrators explicitly noted that the new policy has less to do with gender than religion; and one reports that the Harvard Islamic Society itself was unaware of the change "until it was being formalized and in its final stages." It is one thing for young women to make their own private arrangements to accommodate a requirement for modesty, but it is quite another for a university to make these arrangements. Harvard must be asked to imagine where policies like these might lead (which others might be excluded), and to consider the motives of groups in support of such a program.

As one explores cases of accommodation and abuse of influence across the private sphere, one must judge each according to a scale that accounts for both the exceptional nature of the concession and the degree to which the majority is inconvenienced, restricted as to movement, or hampered in expression. Private concerns may be compelled by situation and environment to alter established practice; but for these same concerns to impose a program of segregation or apply select "Islamic" standards constitutes a grave abuse of influence.  

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