It has been customary in recent years to talk about the "crisis in the humanities." Enrolments are down, and issues of relevance abound. Let me address this through the particular issue of the academic study of religion. In the multicultural desire to create peaceful and pacifist religion so that we all feel good with one another and with our differences, scholars of religion at the University of Calgary and throughout Canada have largely ignored how, when, and why religions become violent. Political correctness prevents us from talking about what happens when certain religious elements go rogue. In missing this opportunity, scholars risk irrelevance or, even worse, they become purveyors of misinformation.
In the case of Islam, my own specialty, scholars — reflecting the language of local Muslim leaders — can neatly distinguish between "good" and "bad" Islam. The former is peaceful and inclusive; whereas the latter is not. Often we will go so far as to say that when Muslims commit violence in the name of Islam, they are not practicing real or authentic Islam. This is mere semantics and certainly ignores the fact that those committing the violence believe that they do so in the name of Islam, and those Muslims who do not join them in their battle against the West are the real inauthentic ones. If something is deemed not real or inauthentic, in other words, you don't have to worry about it, you don't have to teach it — you just ignore it and hope it goes away. Until, of course, young Calgarians start going overseas.
Rather than complicate our understanding of Islam at the university, we instead teach courses that are little more than "Muslim appreciation." If we stray from the path and try to complicate things, instructors are subject to hostilities from some Muslims students. I still remember a young student from Oman standing up in my class and berating me in front of my students, saying that what I was teaching was not the real and authentic Islam. When another student, a non-Muslim, wrote "Islamic Jihad" and "Hamas" in rudimentary Arabic on my blackboard before I got to class, university administrators did nothing. The repentant student informed us that he was learning Arabic on campus from some Muslims students. When I flagged the idea of the potential for radicalization on campus, I was met with blank stares. University officials were simply uninterested that certain Muslim students were teaching non-Muslims about Islam in an unofficial setting on campus. That the first Arabic words they were learning to write were "jihad" and "Hamas" is, in retrospect, both eerie and telling given recent events in Calgary in which several Calgary youth have been radicalized and have died fighting or continue to fight for Islamist groups overseas.
When certain unsavoury things happen on campus, university officials are quick to say, when it suits them, of course, that they are in the business of protecting free speech. They never define, however, what free speech means. Is the denial of the Holocaust "free speech"? Is denouncing Israel in terms that border on classic anti-Semitism in class or in the Student Union Building OK? Who gets to decide? The president of the university or a committee of faculty and students?
This is the new reality on campus. It is not going to go away any time soon. It is certainly a delicate issue because at risk is the very mission of the university. But the current response at the U of C — if you hear something, call the police — is as ineffectual as it is silly. It strikes me that University leaders, here and throughout Canada, need to begin to address the very fine line that separates hate speech from freedom of speech.
This returns me to the crisis of the humanities. As scholars of religion we owe the people we work for — in this case, the taxpayers of Calgary — more than what we deliver. Calgarians, Albertans, and Canadians deserve better from us humanists.
Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester. He taught at the University of Calgary from 2001-2009.