Muslims, Footbaths and the Common Good

"Washbasins" (read: Muslim footbaths) are back in the news. These refer in particular to washing stations installed in public restrooms to accommodate the five-times-daily ablutions required for prayer. The website for the Muslim Students' Association's Dearborn campus chapter at the University of Michigan makes great case for "this [publicly-funded] accommodation," for instance, and notes cryptically that "at least 18 other universities around the country [...] have installed foot-washing facilities, including a number of public universities, at least one being in Michigan."

But facilities like these may soon be flying off the college campus and into a public venue near you. Foot-washing benches were recently installed at the Kansas City International Airport. And the Hoosier State has announced plans to construct foot-washing stations at Indianapolis International. The Indianapolis Star reports that as part of a $1.07 billion terminal construction project, the Indianapolis Airport Authority plans to install "floor-level sinks" in the restroom adjacent the parking lot frequented by cabdrivers.

Not surprisingly, news of the plan has fired up persons across the ideological divide. And, as in times past, arguments both for and against public subsidy of "this accommodation" most often respond to the question of benefit. Terminal project spokesman David Dawson, for instance, remarks, in defense of the airport facilities (read: Muslim footbaths), that these are "for everybody's use."

More expansive is Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. Speaking on footbaths on campus, she argues (without a shred of irony) that her group cannot condemn the things, as this is, first and foremost, an affair of "cleanliness and safety." She states:

"Our policy is to object whenever public funds are spent on any brick and mortar component of religion."

"What makes this different is that the footbaths themselves can be used by anyone [read: ‘everybody'], don't have any symbolic value, and are not stylized in a religious way. They're in a regular restroom, and could be just as useful to a janitor filling up buckets, or someone coming off the basketball court, as to Muslim students."

Ms. Moss has argued, like those before her, that projects of this sort are conceived for the greater good. But language like this cannot appease the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. His reaction:

"Plumbing? You must be kidding. That's an after-the-fact justification for something that is being done for the purpose of meeting a religious demand. [...] After all, what's the difference between a foot bath used as part of a ritual and a fountain that can be used for a baptism?"

The question posed by this sort of reaction is not merely "Who may benefit?" -- the answer is "everybody," at least in theory. But it is difficult to argue that "everybody" requires them, or even desires them.

Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, says as much, and argues:

"[Muslims] are currently well able to accommodate our own prayers and ablution to the spaces and facilities provided to all other faiths on public grounds without special accommodations."

And so to my point: We may, in fact, be sitting on the answer to this public-subsidy flap. I submit, for your consideration, the humble bidet. Here is an appliance designed with "everybody" in mind; and I propose we install them (at public expense) in restrooms across the nation, and not only in those restrooms patronized by the faithful.

I say this because the bidet, while of course resembling the common toilet, may be more exactly described as a washbasin, and has been for three centuries. In sum, I propose we take partisans of the "floor-level sink" (to employ the Indianapolis Star's more inventive term) at their word, and build something for everybody.

But won't some be inclined to dismiss the bidet as ablution-inappropriate? And didn't Crocodile Dundee exclaim, on discovery of the sink: "It's f' washin' y' backside!"? Yes and yes, for sure; but a cursory literature review will expose the instrument's true function, which is to splash "everybody's" anything.

One vendor describes his product as "a little bath to sit in," and writes: "It should be realized that the Bidet is not a competitor of the bathtub or stall shower, but an adjunct-auxiliary-facility." Another claims: "In certain parts of Europe and Middle Eastern Asia, a bidet is sometimes used to quickly wash the feet." (My own interaction with the porcelain module has been similar; and I will testify that our washbasin is no more loathsome than an airport restroom sink.)

My project to install the globally appropriate bidet instead of the merely "Muslim" footbath will certainly reek of lowest-common-denominator-ism; but this is not an unreasonable request, for the reasons that: (1) the bidet boasts a universal appeal, and functional application appropriate to either sex; and, (2) the bidet was designed to accommodate a variety of washings, both secular and profane. In fact, what's been dubbed the "future of personal hygiene" may very well become the future of religious accommodation. And your tax dollars at work.

I'll be the first to admit that there's no movement afoot to demand the installation of the plucky bidet; but neither is there a great voice of support for the installation of ritual washing stations-among workaday Muslims or by anybody else. There's safety here, besides: One can argue that my bidet project is moronic, impractical, and cost-prohibitive, but no one can dismiss the sanitation module in question as a tool of religious accommodation. (The ACLU, who condemn "brick and mortar" accommodations, have yet to pronounce on porcelain, what's more.)

To sum up: Muslims, like any religious minority, enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as "everybody" in these United States. What's required in the present case is a solution fit for a nation -- or, at the very least, a compromise worthy of judicious King Solomon. Mine isn't an obvious solution to the quarrel over public monies and the physical profile of faith, but I think "everybody," with a little coaxing, can agree it's too soon to throw out the bidet with the (ritual) bathwater.

R. John Matthies is a former professor of French literature.