When New Lines published an essay in December about the firing of an academic at Hamline University in Minnesota over the display of a medieval painting of the Prophet Muhammad in an Islamic art history lecture, we knew that it would become a national story. Given the controversies over the issue of Muhammad's portrayal and the violent reactions to it in the past, we had to treat it with the seriousness it deserved.
The Hamline controversy shows precisely why media outlets like ours are a crucial part of the ecosystem. We launched this sensitive issue into the national and global discourses and set the tone for a much deeper conversation on a story that otherwise — had it made it into the national spotlight at all — would have simply been a he said/she said about a disagreement between some Muslim students and academics, when it is so much more than that. We were able to do this with nuance and without falling into conventional wisdom, by using the expertise of an academic specialized in Islamic art and the in-house sensibility of our team. We did this because we believe confident and informed journalism should rise above the tired old model of simply presenting both sides of a story and instead have the courage to move forward on a controversial and sensitive topic in the way that it deserves.
But it's also necessary to examine the anatomy of this controversy, because it highlights exactly what is wrong with how mainstream media handles sensitive cultural stories.
First, some background. On Nov. 18, the Hamline student paper The Oracle published a piece reporting on an incident of alleged Islamophobia, without providing any details about the incident and why it was so labeled. A subsequent article on Dec. 6 explaining the sound logic and context of the painting's inclusion in the class taught by adjunct instructor Erika López Prater was taken down from the university website and only republished after the New York Times reported on the incident a month later.
The inclusion of the painting triggered a complaint by a student, and a memo circulated by the administration described the exercise as "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic." Hamline did not renew the contract for López Prater. The university then walked back this stance after the story became a national controversy and after the professor filed a lawsuit claiming religious discrimination and defamation. In a statement explaining the about-face, the university said it had overstepped in using the term "Islamophobic" to describe the classroom exercise and that it had not intended for the feelings of some of its students to supersede academic freedom. Perhaps this signals a turning point in the increasingly concerning and absurd debate on academic freedoms on campus clashing with the sensibilities and linguistic acrobatics now pervading student bodies.
But it was not just the university and student paper that fumbled their attempt to handle the controversy. Mainstream media outlets that subsequently reported on the incident after the New Lines essay also made important missteps, particularly the widespread decision not to publish the painting that sparked the controversy itself. The Times did not include the painting in its print issue that featured a report on the topic. In the online version of the essay, the depiction was hidden behind a slideshow that readers had to click through, rather than being included in the main art for the story, an apparent attempt to square the arguments for and against inclusion. The Washington Post did not include the painting at all in its report on the controversy, and neither did many other of the mainstream American publications that did so.
The details of the controversy were published in New Lines on Dec. 22 and included some of the paintings in question. The essay was written by Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, who first alerted us to the story. Gruber's essay also delves into the historical context of such paintings and makes the argument that such paintings are the opposite of Islamophobic — that, in fact, they were frequently a tool to express reverence for Islam and its prophet by artists who themselves identified as Muslim. By kowtowing to the complaint and banishing the academic, she argued, the university had in fact submitted to a contemporary, politicized and hardline interpretation of Islamic rules and, in the process, betrayed the causes of academic freedom and free expression.
Gruber was quoted in a subsequent New York Times piece reporting on the controversy, which was published in January and referenced the New Lines essay. This reportage helped bring the story to a national audience.
The decision to include an image of the paintings in our piece was not an easy one. Internally, the magazine's founding editors debated for hours whether to include them or not. The main argument against inclusion was relatively straightforward — depictions of Muhammad in the past, as in the Danish cartoons and the case of the French Charlie Hebdo magazine, had inflamed public sentiment and directly led to violence and loss of life.
This argument, however, falls flat with a cursory understanding of the subject matter. The paintings were not derogatory, like the cartoons were (in fact, in one of them, Muhammad's face is obscured). As Gruber explained, the paintings were in fact Islamophilic rather than Islamophobic and represented an established practice of revering Muhammad through art. Still, there are of course many who would object to publishing any depiction of Muhammad, regardless of its purpose. Our decision brushed aside this hardline view and followed what we believed was also editorially essential: simply to present the full picture to readers without omission. As Gruber's essay argued, the university's ham-fisted response to the controversy also privileged a hardline and fundamentalist view regarding artistic expression, one that has come to dominate the mainstream perception of such controversies.
This is harmful not only to the cause of academic freedom but to the Muslim students who ostensibly are being protected by the university and media outlets' decision to eschew publishing the paintings. Many academics, including Muslim ones, came out in support of the lecturer, saying they themselves show such images in their classes. By making a controversy out of the images, the university and the media undermined the real instances of Islamophobia that take place every day and instead portray Muslims as thin-skinned, a perception that is strengthened by the media's kowtowing to complaints like Hamline's, however silly they are.
To show the paintings was also — and it's hard to overstate this — relevant to the story. How can you publish an essay or report about controversial paintings without including a depiction of the paintings in question? Furthermore, how do you justify their exclusion when the entire point of the controversy is the ideal of free thought and expression and how they are under assault?
In this context, it was bewildering to us that powerful American publications like the Times and the Post chose to publish pieces that did not include or obscured the painting. The Post had not responded to a request for comment on the decision by the time we published this essay. The Times did respond to our query; the full response from their spokesperson is as follows: "The New York Times did make the paintings available via a slideshow in the digital version of the Jan. 8 article. [The] article includes a link to the earlier article. Because we want all readers, including observant Muslims, to be able to access the story, editors decided not to show images of the Prophet Muhammed in the print article but directed anyone who wished to view them to the slideshow."
This decision, particularly the argument that this would have made the reporting accessible to observant Muslims, reflects the need for journalists to involve subject matter experts in these big and thorny cultural stories. This is something we take seriously at New Lines, where we've sought to bring in wordsmiths and academic experts to write first-hand about key touchstone issues, including in our "Anchored in History" series that recasts and explores established dogmas, often reaching the conclusion that orthodoxies are products of accidental historical forces rather than established belief systems or scripture. This is a gamble that paid off in this particular case because the argument for publishing the paintings was based on sound historical and contextual reasons, and added nuance to a debate that is usually prone to hyperbole.
It's important also to note that smaller publications can propel major stories onto the national stage. With legacy media outlets spread too thin covering enormous geographical regions and seeking a deeper focus on stories of grave geopolitical import, outlets like ours have the range and capacity to pursue depth rather than breadth. The Hamline story is a case in point, but so is another recent controversy over the ancestry of George Santos, the fabulist congressman whose claims about a Jewish background were debunked in an investigation by The Forward.
In addition, the controversy also reflects how the debate over Muhammad's depictions has been taken over by extremes on both sides of the argument without recourse to any logic or reason. The basic assumption that legacy media make when deciding not to publish a painting like this is that the alternative would provoke widespread consternation and potentially even violence, an assumption that presupposes that Muslims generally are unreasonable and prone to take offense over anodyne matters. Past controversies about Muhammad depictions have involved polarization and hatred on both sides, particularly since the depictions have usually intended to cause some level of offense. Pundits attacked the whole Muslim community for its backwardness and inability to take a joke, while the Muslim voice was hijacked by the more radical and louder voices that urged death and violence in pursuit of defending a faith that they argued was under attack. The more nuanced coverage complicated this picture.
Most American mainstream media outlets, following the lead of the newspapers of record, chose not to publish the painting in question. MSNBC, for example, ran a seven-minute segment focused on the paintings, their vivid descriptions and history without showing them on the screen, leaving the TV viewer to wonder what the hubbub was all about, a fascinating exercise for a primarily visual medium. It is a decision resulting from the same conventional wisdom that led Hamline's administrators to make the erroneous argument that the painting's inclusion in an art history class dedicated to Islamic art was Islamophobic when it was in fact the opposite, not to mention a violation of the ideals of academic and press freedom espoused by both the media and academic institutions in question.
Rather than submitting to the conventional wisdom on this issue, we chose to interrogate it and came to a different conclusion. It would be wise for other media outlets to conduct similar interrogations of the conventional wisdom, lest they hurt the very communities they think they are trying to protect by censoring themselves.