While the controversy began before most of us returned to campus for the fall, the Kevin Barrett scandal seems not to want to die. On Oct. 11, the Associated Press reported that one of the books for his "Islam: Religion and Culture" class contains an essay in which he compares President Bush to Hitler. The essay, "Interpreting the Unspeakable: The Myth of 9/11," is not required reading for the class but is included in one of the required texts. This continued scandal keeps generating publicity for the University of Wisconsin, and little of it is positive.
The controversy has brought the ire of the Capitol and the public. Some state legislators have called for the firing of Dr. Barrett. On July 20, Provost Patrick Farrell sent Dr. Barrett a letter stating that it was inappropriate for Dr. Barrett to identify himself with UW while talking about his personal views. Even Governor Jim Doyle has expressed his doubts about Dr. Barrett's ability.
Many at UW have come to support Dr. Barrett teaching what he sees fit, even if they do not personally agree with his views. There is a section on UW's website dedicated to both sides of the Kevin Barrett case. Those who support Dr. Barrett's position claim that UW should not cave to the pressure of the Legislature and the public. Professor Donald Downs, a member of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, wrote that firing Dr. Barrett would allow the public and the Capitol to dictate to the university whom it should hire, which "would seriously compromise the wide-open pursuit of truth for which the university properly stands."
All fields on this campus are based in large part on theories. Linguistics is based on the theory of universal grammar. Biology is based largely on the theory of evolution. Some of these theories are more controversial than others, but these theories have been tested in the laboratory or the field and accepted by academics. The freedom to teach a controversial theory accepted by the academic community is necessary in order to challenge us in and out of the classroom.
Islam is no exception. Islamists have been battling over controversies surrounding Islamic study: Is Islam locked in a clash of civilizations with Christianity? How does Islam reconcile with the modern nation-state? What role does Islam play in conflicts such as Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan? Has mainstream Islam been hijacked by Islamist extremists?
In a survey class such as Dr. Barrett's, the focus should be on giving the information needed to answer some of these controversies. Basic Islamic history, the tenets of Islam, Islamic schools of thought and case studies of Islam in the modern world are more than enough to fill a semester. Wasting a week on conspiracy theory will do little to help an undergraduate formulate opinions on these issues that are not only important for a liberal education but for our society's outlook on Islam.
Many prestigious members of this university agree that what Dr. Barrett teaches is wrong, but few will say publicly that they support his firing. While Dr. Downs has supported conservatives (such as this newspaper) in their freedom of expression, I question whether he would support the teaching of fringe right-wing theories on our campus. Would UW faculty rally behind someone teaching intelligent design? Would a lecturer teaching that homosexuality is morally wrong be allowed to dedicate a week to it in Human Sexuality? Religion except in an academic sense is not allowed on a public campus, but framing these topics in a "moral values" sense will pass the bar of "academic freedom." Would UW allow these extreme right-wing theories to be taught in class?
I do support teaching controversy. Any upper-level class will be based on theories. Some theories are inherently controversial; however, they are necessary for the foundation of that field. What Dr. Barrett is teaching is not part of understanding basic Islamic principles. 9/11 conspiracy theory is a topic that is at best suitable for a coffee shop discussion, not for a survey class of Islamic religion and culture.
Now that UW has allowed him to teach, the university has opened Pandora's Box for teaching topics that are on the fringe. If UW tried to censor or fire someone teaching about the superiority of traditional marriage or aliens being held captive at Area 51, the university would look even worse in the media or could even face a lawsuit. UW should support academic freedom, but department chairs should ensure that those teaching do not hijack the blackboard for personal radical views, if only for a week. Controversy is inherent in any academic field, but extremism detracts from our learning, which only hurts our education and this university.
Jeff Carnes (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in linguistics.