Interest in Saturday's "Islam and Sexuality" conference was high on campus, with the event promising sessions with engaging titles, such as "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Muhammad?" and a keynote by controversial scholar Joesph Massad, an Arab politics professor at Columbia University
The event was deemed so potentially divisive that the Muslim Students Association (MSA) made it clear that is was not among the organizers.
"Different people in the MSA thought different things; there was no one unified MSA opinion," second-year and Vice-President Samina Lutfeali said. "It's not that we thought dialogue shouldn't take place, because it should. It's just that we chose not to be associated with something that could potentially be disrespectful to a lot of our members."
The conference, however, was more technical than controversial. The audience mainly comprised graduate students and faculty members.
The session with the attention-grabbing title, "Sexual Ambiguity/Ambiguous Sexuality: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Muhammad?" turned out to be about an 18th century sodomite named Muhammad, not about the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Some considered the word play humorous, while others were somewhat irritated. "The title was really misleading," second-year Fatoumatta Darboe said. "It should reflect the content of the talk."
Massad's speech focused on the problems problems scholars encounter when translating Western terms like "gay" or "sexuality." The discussion of Islam and sexuality is "nearly impossible," Massad said, because these words make use of different referents in different contexts.
Massad's paper was thoroughly questioned by the scholars in the audience. The few undergraduates present remained quiet throughout.
"It was not what we expected," Lutfeali said. "It was very technical and all about definitions...not really about Islam or sexuality."
The event's organizers defended the talks. Ramon Gutierrez, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, said the event was the third in a series looking at different cultures--Latino and Asian-American--and sexuality.
"There was no attempt to correct any preconceived notions about Islam, or for that matter, among Asian Americans and Latinos. The idea was to explore how these different populations with different histories and different ways of understanding the body and its corporeal pleasures, organize the idea of sexuality."
Gutierrez said that the title for "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Muhammad?" was changed at the last minute.
"Why [the speaker] chose to change it at the last minute is a mystery to me," Gutierrez said. "I doubt that she was trying to create some kind of buzz."
Darboe said she was was disappointed the talks didn't address the topics more directly. "It would have been a refreshing change if the scholars have talked of how the majority of Muslims don't treat women or homosexuals in a bad way."
The event was sponsored by the Center for Gender Studies, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, Social Identities, and the Center for International Studies.