In the name of combating Islamophobia, Hamline University in Minnesota has committed a particularly egregious exercise in Islamophobia.
Last October, Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor teaching a global art history class, included a masterpiece of 14th-century Islamic art depicting the Prophet Mohammed receiving Koranic revelations from the archangel Gabriel. Recognizing that some Muslims regard depictions of the prophet (and in some extreme cases, anyone at all) as blasphemous, she provided repeated advance warnings to her students, both in the course syllabus and in class.
According to reports, no one appeared concerned before the online class, and she shared the work of art, along with many others. Afterward, a Muslim American student complained to the university, others not enrolled in the class piled on, and Hamline declared that exposing students to this significant masterwork of Islamic art was "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic." López Prater has now been told her contract will not be renewed and, as a disposable adjunct, has no defense other than the fact that she did nothing wrong.
The fundamental questions raised by this case are what is Islamophobia, what is Islam, and who speaks for Muslims? When I was earning my Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the 1990s, I was involved in a lot of campus activism, and I recognized this dynamic at Hamline instantly. This student and her allies are using a phony complaint of discrimination as a power play.
Rationalizing their response, university officials noted that, "To look upon an image of the Prophet Muhammad, for many Muslims, is against their faith." As someone raised and imbued with Islamic values, I know this is true. But no one compelled anyone to look at such an image, and why would one teach an art history course without showing one of the subject matter's masterpieces?
What these students are saying is not that they shouldn't have been required to look at the image, since most weren't even in the class, but that this image should never be shown. Thus they are asserting the right to define what is and is not Islamic, and to speak on behalf of all Muslims. In its craven rush to placate an aggrieved minority, the university is endorsing a reactionary effort to police the meaning of Islam at Hamline and, potentially, US higher education in general.
The miniature comes from a 14th-century Persian classic called The Compendium of Chronicles, which was authored, illustrated, commissioned and enjoyed by Muslims. It occupies a noteworthy place in the artistic history of Islamic civilizations. To brand its display — with ample "trigger warnings" — as blasphemous is to shrink the history of Islam into a small and impoverished cage.
Nearly one in four persons in the world is Muslim; Islamic civilization has been one of most diverse set of human cultures since its birth in the 7th century. There isn't much difference between the word "person" and the word "Muslim" in our community, because given this kaleidoscopic chronological and geographic diversity, virtually every human proclivity and experience is represented somewhere in Islamic cultures.
For example, even though most Muslims agree alcohol is religiously proscribed, the idea that Muslims don't drink doesn't survive contact with any diverse group of real-life Muslims, or even many of the greatest Islamic civilizations. As for the sexual prudery one sees in many Arab nations today, simply look at past literature, beginning with the 15th-century Arabic sex manual The Perfumed Garden, or, more edgy, the pederastic poetry of the 9th-century master Abu Nuwas, which is both revered and reviled.
Yet across the globe, religious conservatives want to exercise power and control to eliminate any diversity. Western progressives, including non-Muslims, frequently side with them because they don't recognize, or don't care, that doing so constitutes an alliance with religious reactionaries who only appear "authentic" because of their stridency. Liberal institutions like Hamline are content with the lowest common denominator if it shuts up protesters, and non-tenured professors are easy scapegoats.
American Muslim organizations are divided on this incident. The Muslim Public Affairs Council has supported López Prater, while the local chapter of the more conservative Council on American-Islamic Relations joined the blasphemy brigade of aggrieved students. (CAIR's national organization took a more ambivalent stance.)
If American universities are serious about treating Islam and Muslims with respect, López Prater needs to be rehired, and no other college should fall into such infantilizing ploys. Fear of the full complexity of Islam as a social text and the dizzying variety among Muslims, their cultures and civilizations — today and throughout history — is an insidious and dangerous form of Islamophobia.