A Muslim, Her Guide Horse, and Reciprocity   Dec 16, 2010 

More than a year after their story first made waves, a blind woman and her hefty four-legged companion are back in the news following her enrollment at Michigan State University. AFP paints the picture:

Mona Ramouni was taking notes with a Braille device when her guide pony Cali joined the class discussion with a sudden snort.

"What do you think, Cali?" professor Shelley Smithson said with a laugh, and then steered the conversation back to theories of counseling and psychotherapy.

Cali is just one of a handful of miniature horses in the United States known to be used as guide animals for the blind and is likely the first pony to attend college.

Before obtaining the horse, Ramouni had no service animal because her devout Muslim family considers dogs to be unclean and would not allow one at home. Photos of Cali exiting a vehicle, idling in class, and quenching her thirst at a public sink can be viewed here.

Is this another case of a Muslim enjoying special accommodations unavailable to non-Muslims? Not exactly. Neither the Guide Horse Foundation (GHF) nor a New York Times Magazine piece gives any indication that the emergence of these animals, which are both controversial and rare, has been driven by Islamic concerns. Indeed, the GHF website lists only nonreligious arguments in support of guide horses, while none of the people featured there appears to be Muslim.

Also of note: such animals have legal standing. Updates to the Americans with Disabilities Act declare that "a public entity shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability."

Though guide horses and their acceptance in public places are not Islam-specific innovations, the above story nevertheless does bring to mind the matter of reciprocity regarding Muslims in the West. One cannot hear the tale of Ramouni and Cali without recalling the countless examples of people with guide dogs being turned away, on both sides of the Atlantic, by Muslim-staffed restaurants, Muslim taxi drivers, Muslim bus drivers, and non-Muslim bus drivers placating irate Muslim passengers. Furthermore, who could forget Tyler Hurd, a man suffering from seizures who, like Ramouni, only wanted to attend school? Two years ago, his Muslim classmate at St. Cloud State in Minnesota threatened to kill his service dog, forcing Hurd to leave the course.

If American society is so responsive to different needs and lifestyles that it even enables the use of a small horse by a Muslim who objects to canines on religious grounds, is it too much to ask — nay, demand — that all Muslims respect the rights of non-Muslims employing service dogs, whether in taxis, restaurants, or anywhere else? More generally, is it not time for Muslims in the West, starting with their self-appointed representatives, to understand that accommodation is a two-way street requiring some give to balance the take?

by David J. Rusin  •  Dec 16, 2010 


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