Activists associated with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) tried to isolate and punish an art history professor who displayed pictures of Muhammad to students at Hamline University, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota. The attempt has generated significant blowback from free speech activists and proponents of academic freedom.
The images of Muhammad were shown via Zoom on October 6, 2022, to students in an art history class at the school, which has an enrollment of 1,800. The adjunct professor, whose name and gender have not been revealed to the public by either by the school or his/her advocates in an ostensible effort to protect the professor's safety, warned the students about images before displaying them to the class. The images were produced by Muslim artists in the 14th and 16th centuries.
"I am showing you this image for a reason," the professor said. "And that is that there is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture."
According to the Hamline Oracle, the school's newspaper, Aram Wedatalla, a senior and a president of the MSA at the school, took offense at the images and felt victimized by their display. "I'm like this can't be real," she told the paper. "As a Muslim, and a black person, I don't feel like I belong, and I don't think I'll ever belong in a community where they don't value me as a member, and they don't show the same respect that I show them."
Deangela Huddleston, another Hamline senior and MSA member, told the Oracle that the school teaches that the intent of the professor is irrelevant and that "the impact is what matters."
The two MSA activists complained of the trauma they endured to officials at the school, and on October 8, the art history professor sent an email to Wedatalla apologizing for making the students feel uncomfortable and for causing them "emotional agitation."
It was to no avail. On November 7, 2022, David Everett, the school's Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence, sent an all-campus email declaring that what had happened in the classroom was "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic." A few days later, Everett told the Hamline Oracle that "In lieu of this incident [sic], it was decided that it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline Community." (The school has not responded to a request for comment, nor has the MSA.)
The blowback has been fierce, indicating that MSA activists have gone too far in their effort to enforce Islamic blasphemy laws at Hamline. In particular, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has come to the defense of the professor whose contract to work at the school was terminated. In a letter sent to the school on December 27, 2022, FIRE said Hamline's decision to not renew the professor's contract for showing the images contradicts the school's stated commitment to academic freedom.
"An instructor's right to navigate difficult material—like whether to display a historical painting of Muhammad when many Muslims believe Muhammad 'should not be pictured in any way' is well within Hamline's commitment to protect academic speech that may be 'potentially unpopular and unsettling,'" FIRE declared in the letter.
In addition to FIRE, the Academic Freedom Alliance headquartered in Princeton, N.J., accused Hamline of dismissing the unnamed professor without due process and in so doing, "severely damaged the intellectual climate at Hamline University and told every scholar who sets foot on [the] campus that free and open inquiry is circumscribed by the sensibilities and sensitivities of the students."
Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, said that if the reports about the controversy are true, "Hamline University has committed one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory."
Christiane Gruber, Professor of Islamic Art and former Chair in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has started a petition at Change.com calling on Hamline to reinstate the unnamed professor. The petition, which has received more than 2,500 signatures since it was initiated on December 24, 2022, condemns the administration for dismissing the professor from teaching classes during the spring semester.
The decision "set a dangerous precedent should future students request that the university 'ban' the teaching of other art historical materials—such as Byzantine icons of Jesus Christ, figural statues of the Buddha, Jewish depictions of Moses at Dura Europos, etc.—on campus," the petition declares.
The professor's dismissal has prompted criticism from a former jihadist who says Muslims should ignore the controversy and move on.
"It's so silly it's not even worth commenting on," said Ismail Royer, who spent time in prison for assisting the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir, and who now serves as Director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute.
The images in question, Royer says, qualify as iconography, which is prohibited in Sunni Islam, but are clearly not images of Muhammad himself, because no one knows what he looked like and therefore logically cannot draw a picture of him. And even if the images were drawn as an attempt to provoke Muslims into anger and prove a point about free speech, Royer says, the proper response would be to ignore the controversy altogether. Reacting violently merely makes Muslims look bad and proves the point of people drawing or showing the images.
"If Muslims don't want more of these things, they should just ignore it and let people do their thing," he said.
Dexter Van Zile is managing editor of the Middle East Forum publication Focus on Western Islamism.