When Muslim students and community members sat down for Friday prayer on Feb. 15 in Anabel Taylor Hall, they sought spiritual peace and a sense of solidarity with fellow Muslims.
What they encountered, however, was a sermon laden with homophobic slurs, according to attendees.
“Not all homosexuals are pedophiles, but all pedophiles are homosexuals,” the individual said, according to Ihsan Kabir ’14, president of the Committee for the Advancement of Muslim Culture.
The individual — who was previously a University employee — then shouted remarks targeting the LGBTQ community, criticizing President Barack Obama for “being too liberal” in his acceptance of homosexuality.
“Homosexuals are freaks and queers who want a pink earth,” the individual said, according to Kabir.
Not only did the individual target the LGBTQ community, but he also criticized how some Muslim women take off their hijab, or head scarf, after praying, according to Kabir.
“Women are dressing like men, but are naked at the same time,” the speaker said.
The sermon, or khutba — which is delivered every week by a different community member — was given that week by an individual some students say has delivered inflammatory speeches in the past.
Although Sana Siddiqui ’13, president of MECA, was not present at the sermon, she said the events of the prayer service left her and fellow students shocked and upset.
“My reaction upon hearing about the speech was the same as the reaction of the students who told me about it — just absolute horror,” she said. “I didn’t see this coming and was shocked and disgusted to hear that something to hateful had happened.”
Sanya Hashmi ’14 said the sermon left people uneasy, and “no one quite knew what to do.”
“I ended up staying in order to hear all that he had to say, but the anger caused by this individual’s words ruined my prayer that day,” Hashmi said. “I must stress that it was the overall message of the speech that greatly offended me, as those ideas of hatred had no place at Friday prayer.”
In an open letter distributed on Feb. 20 that was signed by 46 students and community members as of Sunday, Adam Abboud ’14 also expressed distress at the incident.
“As a Muslim and a firm believer in the teachings of Islam and its premise of justice and social equity, I am absolutely disgusted by such behavior,” Abboud said.
In response to the incident, Cornell administrators will release a “Cornell Responds” statement shortly, according to Kent Hubbell ’69, dean of students.
Hubbell said the statement was not issued immediately after the incident because administrators “had to consider the incident in light of principles of freedom of expression especially in a religious context.”
“We wanted to be very thoughtful about how we responded to it,” Hubbell said. “We would have loved to have talked about this a week ago, but we wanted to make sure we understood exactly what happened.”
Student leaders, graduate students and senior community members also met on Feb. 18 to discuss ways to move forward after the incident. They decided the individual would be banned from giving sermons and an apology would be issued during the next Friday prayer session on behalf of community members who had allowed him to speak, according to Ihsan.
Although the meeting addressed some issues the sermon discussed, some students expressed concern that the incident would perpetuate negative stereotypes of Islam.
“I hope that this isolated incident, grave though it is, does not reflect poorly on the Muslim community here at Cornell,” Hashmi said. “Muslims have enough bad publicity without the airing of such incidents and the actions of [a] few individuals.”
Echoing Hashmi’s sentiments, Abboud asked in his letter for “people who read this narrative to not allow this hateful incident to skew their understanding of Islam and further perpetuate negative views of Islam as a hateful, misogynistic [or] homophobic faith.”
“I will be the first to admit that this individual’s sermon is not an isolated incident of prejudice and misogyny; however, his views should not be simplified as views inherent to Muslims,” Abboud said.
Clarke emphasized that the incident should be seen as a bias case.
“Specific communities — gays, lesbians and women — were targeted in this sermon with language that reflected homophobia and sexism,” Clarke said. “This was an abuse of power — granted to an individual entrusted to deliver a sermon to a congregation for Friday prayers — that is inseparable from bias. No community should be targeted in such a way.”