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Muslim professor: Showing Muhammad wasn’t offensive, but Hamline response is

Hamline University's Old Main
In October, a Hamline University adjunct professor showed her students a slide of a 14th-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad — including his face — after giving a trigger warning. The professor’s teaching contract was not renewed.
Tim Post | MPR News 2008

A lecture in a Hamline University art history class last fall has become the subject of a heated debate over academic freedom and religion.

In October, an adjunct professor showed her students a slide of a 14th century painting of the Prophet Muhammad — including his face — after giving a trigger warning. Many Muslims believe images of the prophet should not be viewed or created.

A Muslim student in the class later complained about the lesson, and Hamline administrators sent a campus-wide email calling the incident "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic." The professor's teaching contract has not been renewed.

One person who's been following this closely is Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton College whose opinion piece about the incident was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Prof. Khalid on Morning Edition.

I know you're a professor of history, not art history. But let's start with the image in question. What can you tell us about it?

Well, the image is a 14th-century image that is part of a text that was written by a statesman and scholar, Rashid al-Din. And the image is illustrating Muhammad’s first revelation, so the angel Gabriel is there and revealing to Muhammad the first words that were said. That's the image.

It became incredibly controversial after this particular story, but what's worth noting is that this image is considered a masterpiece by art historians. It's housed at the University of Edinburgh library, and there's also a copy of it in the Khalili Collections in London.

The piece you wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education has a striking title. It's called "Most of All, I Am Offended as a Muslim." To you, what's the most problematic thing about this incident at Hamline?

Well, if I may, actually, I'm offended at many levels. And most of all, yes, as a Muslim. I'm offended as a professor, because it's a violation of academic freedom of professors teaching in the classroom. I'm also offended as a historian, because the administration's stance that you cannot show primary texts like these completely goes against what we as historians do in our classes.

Thirdly and most importantly, I'm offended as a Muslim, because the stance that the administration has taken is basically asserting that there is only one version of Islam, which is the valid version, and it's an erasure of the Islamic tradition which is very, very rich and diverse. So my problem with the administration, most importantly, is that they're endorsing a particular view of Islam, and in doing so, they're silencing billions of Muslims who do not subscribe to that view.

So you do not view this classroom incident as Islamophobic, as some think it is?

No, I do not see it as Islamophobic. Islamophobic is about malintent towards Muslims, or something that is symbolic to Muslims. There is no malintent here. The professor, I mean, I couldn't have done it better myself. She gave a trigger warning in the curriculum. She talked about it before she showed the slides, warning students, giving them an option to turn their screens off because this class was going on online, and then announcing when the images were gone and they could turn their screens back on.

So frankly, this is not an Islamophobic incident. And it's important to note that CAIR national has also noted that intention is absolutely necessary. So by CAIR national, I'm referring to the Council for American-Islamic Relations, and their national chapter has said that without intention, it can't be considered Islamophobic.

The other thing to note is this is an image that was made of Muhammad in reverence and celebration of him, and it was done by Muslims. So that piece is incredibly important over here. This is not the same as a mocking image or satirical cartoon of Muhammad. This is categorically a very, very different thing.

In your opinion, then, how should Hamline University have handled things differently?

I think – I've heard that there have been incidents of Islamophobia. I don't know the nature of them. I think when the student complained, this is an educational moment. That's what we're in the business of doing.

Hamline University should have said, “Well, we understand that you're offended. Your offense is a great moment to learn more about the Islamic tradition because clearly, you're coming from a very particular point of view.”

You know, these things are not done to offend students. We're in the business of education. [At] a higher education institution, the prime mission is to teach, and it should be learning for the students. So I think they should have used this as a teaching opportunity, and actually, they should have addressed the actual incidents that are happening on campus, which I believe I've heard have been happening, which were Islamophobic.

Instead, they chose to throw an adjunct professor under the bus to show some kind of solidarity with their Muslim students, and they just chose the wrong thing. This is not the kind of conversation in which an institution should be intervening in this fashion.

Of course, you know that there's this focus that many colleges and universities [have] of creating a welcoming, accessible and inclusive campus, and you mentioned that the job of colleges and universities is to educate students.

Where's the balance between keeping students safe and comfortable, and engaging in scholarly dialogue when the conversations may turn uncomfortable or even psychologically distressing?

Well, I have a real problem with this idea of psychological harm, right. I think as long as things are done in an educational context and they're properly contextualized, I'll say we as professors have academic freedom, but we also have academic responsibility.

So there is something to be said for properly contextualizing and giving students adequate warning, which this professor had done. And if it is done in that fashion, then it is a teaching moment. I don't see any problem with that. I think, you know, this idea that you can be harmed psychologically by things is actually a very dangerous idea, because what harms one person doesn't harm another person. This is a very subjective thing, and it's really getting in the way of our pedagogy and our learning experience.

So when it comes to safety, yes, institutions are responsible for providing safety, but I think we need to be very careful about how we define safety. There is an element of physical safety, and yes, students should generally feel welcome and be given respect. But I think taking it so far, where we begin to talk about offense, which is very personal, or bias, that's a very unproductive area.

And that's where I feel like this entire scripted conversation about what diversity, equity and inclusion ought to be are getting in the way of our mission. I want to emphasize: I'm in favor of diversity, equity and inclusion, but not in the ways in which many of the DEI bureaucracies are pushing them.

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