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The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Op-ed: The truth about ‘Interfaith’ Week

Robert Zayd KiaNouri-Zigmund is the former graduate assistant for religious and spiritual life at the Multicultural Student Services Center.

Over the past four months, Assistant Director A.J. King, Director Dustin Pickett and myself, the graduate assistant for religious and spiritual life, have left GW’s Multicultural Student Services Center. Following my departure, I am deeply concerned about what I believe is the continuous repression by University administrators of the MSSC and many of the marginalized groups that it advocates for.

The MSSC was originally in charge of Interfaith Week, with a deep commitment to inclusivity. Planning for the week always and rightfully revolved around supporting the diverse and often marginalized religious communities here at GW. This year, its execution entailed the exact opposite.

Interfaith Week was originally scheduled to take place from Jan. 29 through Feb. 5. However, I was informed by an Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement administrator that Interfaith Week would be shut down, redeveloped and permanently stripped from the MSSC’s control by senior officials because of the perception that the programming “intentionally left out and excluded Zionist voices.”

This new Interfaith Week, which took place last week and was instead planned by the ODECE, comes at a time when the University is trying to rehabilitate its image with marginalized communities after suppressing and repeatedly cracking down on pro-Palestinian student groups. This includes explicitly religious groups, like Jewish Voice for Peace, which now faces the threat of suspension.

As the graduate assistant for religious and spiritual life, I and other MSSC staff reached out to more than 20 religious and faith-based organizations on campus as we planned the original week of programming. These organizations were from diverse backgrounds and identities, including the GW Coptic Student Association, GW Chabad, GW Hillel and the GW Sikh Student Association.

I also met daily with religious students and student organizations to develop an in-depth understanding of what students felt was most needed at GW in terms of interfaith programming, religious accommodations and representation.

In preparation for my position in the MSSC, I also undertook intensive training and became certified in interfaith leadership with Interfaith America. I used that background to ensure the center did everything possible to bring in all of the diverse religious and spiritual communities at GW.

The MSSC and the Interfaith Council, a now-defunct student group, have jointly run Interfaith Week since 2019. Part of the MSSC’s original programming included a discussion circle on religion and social justice, moderated by JVP and the Muslim Students Association. We had also planned a potluck with Hillel, which was being finalized. In the original plan I helped create, Interfaith Week was intended to be a space for all students to share meaningful experiences in a comfortable setting.

But fewer than two hours before the first event was scheduled to start Jan. 29, I was notified by administrators that our Interfaith Week was getting shut down. Unsatisfied with our programming decisions, GW effectively dissolved positions within the MSSC and handed the reins over to the ODECE and Division for Student Affairs.

The only explanation I was given for the cancellation of the week’s worth of events was that there was a perception that the MSSC had created a schedule that, per the ODECE official, “intentionally left out and excluded Zionist voices.” This decision came despite our programming with Hillel and the extensive work and outreach we conducted to bring in students and staff from all traditions, backgrounds and perspectives.

A few weeks later, the same officials said they were going to strip the entire issue area of religious and spiritual life from the MSSC’s mission, a cornerstone of its work since its inception combating segregation in the 1960s. I was told religious and spiritual life would be transferred to DSA because, as I understood it, officials wanted more oversight of the MSSC’s programming.

After this, I was informed my job responsibilities were being transferred elsewhere, that my position was redundant and the purpose of my role going forward was unclear. I resigned shortly after this final decision. I felt I could no longer carry out the mission of advocacy, equity and justice for religious and spiritual communities at GW.

The University then started a new Interfaith Week, which ODECE hosted last week. Despite the significant Muslim student population at GW, the new plan for Interfaith Week did not include any events for Muslim students, staff or religious leaders besides “A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Priest Walk Into a Bar,” which Hillel hosted. No imam was present for the event.

In place of “What Does Interfaith Mean?” and “Religion and Social Justice,” officials hosted events titled “Spiritual Meaning of Donuts” and “Astrology as a Spiritual Practice.” No events on the new schedule created space for Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Hindu, Reconstructionist Jewish or Sikh students. None of the events were held in collaboration with a student group except GW Hillel and GW Catholics.

Moving Interfaith Week programming to ODECE placed far more direct administrative control over its events and far less student involvement or consultation in its planning — a considerable number of undergraduates compose the MSSC’s staff.

The new week left out the most underrepresented and vulnerable minority groups at the University. The programming is indicative of how ODECE and other administrative offices are simply unable to have the same consciousness of GW’s diverse communities that the MSSC has.

The remodeling of Interfaith Week emblemizes a broader lack of inclusivity. Earlier this year, the MSSC enrolled the University in the INSPIRES Index, which catalogs existing resources and policies around religious and spiritual identities. In results that will be available later next week, GW scored a two out of five in terms of fostering an inclusive environment, providing necessary accommodations and responding to discrimination.

Students of every identified religious group were also significantly less likely to feel comfortable at GW compared to other private, nonsectarian institutions, according to the index.

There is an all-around lack of attention to religious and spiritual communities at GW, but marginalized communities are most affected by this lack of support. They are in desperate need of the advocacy and programming that the MSSC was trying to provide.

At a time of serious upheaval, it is crucial that already existing advocacy spaces like the MSSC are supported in carrying out their mission. Instead of equipping the MSSC with the funding and resources to independently carry out its work for religious students, as it has for more than 50 years, officials have said they are creating an entirely new “Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.” This center will require new staff who will have to learn everything about these communities from scratch.

Instead of drawing conclusions as to the departure of any other MSSC staff, I wanted to explain why the original Interfaith Week was canceled and why officials established a new, less inclusive one. As an advocacy space, the MSSC should function as independently as possible from the administrative channels whose primary concern is University image management.

The future of marginalized religious and spiritual communities at GW and the MSSC will be shaped by how we choose to respond to these developments. In these challenging times, spaces like the MSSC and the students they represent must be given the tools and resources they need to thrive. We can and must create a more compassionate, just and equitable campus.

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