An Iranian-born history professor at San Francisco State University is being investigated by the school's 'Equity Programs & Compliance' office after a Muslim student complained that he showed a picture of Prophet Muhammad during a lecture.
Professor Maziar Behrooz was teaching his class about the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700 last fall when he showed the image of the Muslim prophet, aggravating a devout student.
In some sects of Islam images of Muhammad are strictly forbidden, a long-held practice intended to prevent people from worshiping the man as a god. The student told this to Behrooz, who insisted that what was and wasn't shown in his class was his decision.
Behrooz says similar images are widely sold in Tehran, and displayed in the homes of Shi'ite Muslims, who have no qualms about sharing images of Muhammad.
The student then went to Behrooz's department chair and to school administrators to complain, leading to the school's Equity office to open an official investigation into the matter in March.
Behrooz is scheduled to have a meeting with the office in early April. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education that though he isn't terribly worried about the investigation, he remains uncertain about what might happen. 'How it goes from here is anybody's guess,' he said.
Behrooz said he had shown the same image in his class for years without ever receiving a complaint, and that he was baffled to receive one.
'This is the first time that this has happened,' he said. 'I was not prepared for somebody to be offended, in a secular university, talking about history rather than religion.'
After the student complained to Behrooz, they went to the department chair who then spoke with the professor about the situation.
Behrooz explained to the chair not only were the student's beliefs not held by all Muslims, but that the image of Muhammad he'd shown was widely available for purchase even in the capital of Iran - where Behrooz was born - and that some branches of Islam had the drawings on their homes walls.
The student then complained to 'authorities higher up,' which led to the investigation being opened.
After news of the investigation broke, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) sent a letter to San Francisco State University president Lynn Mahoney demanding that the case be dropped, arguing that even an investigation into the situation was an affront to academic freedoms.
'An instructor's right to navigate difficult material — like whether to display a historical painting even though some Muslims believe Muhammad 'should not be pictured in any way' — falls well within the First Amendment's protection of academic freedom and our nation's broader commitment to it,' the organization wrote.
FIRE argued that the use of possibly sensitive materials were necessary for properly teaching history, and that to penalize somebody for doing so would be out of line.
'Pedagogically relevant material may include words, concepts, subjects, or discussions that some, many, or even most students find upsetting or uncomfortable, including displaying materials that may offend those who practice a certain religion. Faculty must be free of institutional restraints in attempting to confront and examine complex issues, as was Behrooz in teaching Islamic history,' FIRE wrote.
It comes just days after the president of Hamline University said she would retire months after a scandal involving a professor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class.
President Fayneese Miller initially defended the small school in Minnesota's decision not to renew the contract of adjunct professor Erika Lopez Prater who had shown students the Muslim prophet - after providing them with a warning.
But the school finally backtracked after widespread criticism and a lawsuit filed by the professor.
Previously, leaders at Hamline said 71 of 92 faculty members who attended a meeting in January voted to call on Miller to resign immediately.
They said they had lost faith in Miller because of her handling of an objection lodged by a Muslim student who said seeing the artwork violated her religious beliefs.