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But the context and her intent didn’t seem to matter. After a student complained, the university’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence declared the incident “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic,” and announced that the instructor’s contract would not be renewed. A representative from the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called the incident “Islamophobic” and “an act of insult.” As one member of the Hamline Muslim Student Association put it, “Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent; the impact is what matters.”
Controversy over depictions of the prophet is routine, but the Hamline case may be unique in that it brings a kind of Islamic aniconism together with the logic of the neoliberal university and its attempts to manage diversity. Comparison with an important earlier dispute, which played out differently, reveals these dynamics.
A frieze on the north wall of the U.S. Supreme Court depicts Muhammad wielding a scimitar with his right hand and clutching a Quran in his left. Erected in 1931, the frieze became the subject of controversy in 1997, when a coalition of Muslim groups led by CAIR called for its removal.
The Supreme Court refused the request, noting that the sculpture of the prophet was “a well-intentioned attempt … to honor Muhammad.” His inclusion alongside other great “lawgivers” of history like Moses and Confucius had been intended as an inclusive gesture. Other American Muslims recognized this from the start; the executive director of the American Muslim Council called the depiction an honor and insisted that “you have to take it in historical context.”
Eventually, a fatwa on the matter was sought from the prominent Islamic scholar Taha Jabir al-Alwani. Al-Alwani held a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University, in Egypt, one of the world’s most highly regarded seats of Sunni Islamic learning, which al-Alwani taught for a decade at an Islamic university in Saudi Arabia.
A main principle within Islamic jurisprudence contends that acts ought to be judged by intentions (in Arabic, al-umur bi-maqasidiha), which is rooted in a well-known hadith or prophetic saying stating that “actions are according to intentions” (innama al-aʿmal bi-l-niyyat). Indeed, “intention” (niyya) is a significant concept in Islam. For example, proper intent precedes all acts of worship in Islam. It’s a fundamental marker distinguishing the performance of ritual ablutions, for example, from simply washing oneself.
Accordingly, al-Alwani considered not only the impact but also the context and the intent of the depiction. In his 28-page response, al-Alwani declared the depiction permissible, calling it a “positive gesture.” Alongside more technical justifications drawing from the Quran and hadith (the textual sources of Sunni Islamic law), he emphasized the positive value Western culture gives to pictorial expression and the importance of the inclusive message behind the frieze, concluding that it “deserves nothing but appreciation and gratitude from American Muslims.”
Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent; the impact is what matters.
How did we get from judging actions by intentions to “it doesn’t matter the intent”?
Clearly, much has changed from 1997 to late 2022. Most obvious is the heightened Islamophobia that followed the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. campaign against terrorism.
Tensions were further inflamed in response to the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, which sparked protests around the world, and the 2015 shooting at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices in Paris. In the aftermath of these incidents, reports circulated widely claiming that Islam forbids any depiction of the prophet. Journalists framed these cases as if any depiction of the prophet was enough to offend Muslims. But none of the Western museums whose Islamic art collections feature devotional portraits of Muhammad made by Persian or Turkish Muslims had been targeted with protests or censure. Crucial context had often been left out of the story: The cartoons that inspired protests and terror attacks specifically intended to mock and insult. They depicted the prophet with a bomb for a turban, or nude with genitalia exposed.
The lack of nuance in reports about these controversies would soon come to be embraced by Islamic authorities themselves. Historically, the Islamic tradition has encompassed a diverse range of positions on the question of depicting the prophet, including both acceptance and prohibition. But, as the Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber describes, the cartoon controversies led to a hardening of Sunni Islamic legal reasoning on iconism. Considerations of context and intent gave way to new fatwas issuing blanket condemnation of all depictions of the prophet — even Muslim devotional ones.
For years, U.S. higher education has been in crisis. The tenure system, meant to protect the faculty’s freedom of speech and academic freedom, has been eroded by a neoliberal cost-saving strategy favoring precarious adjunct labor over permanent faculty. In 1969, only 22 percent of U.S. faculty members were not tenured or on the tenure track. Today, more than 50 percent of all faculty members are adjuncts, and 75 percent of faculty members are off the tenure track. Hamline is no exception to this trend, with 56 percent of its teaching staff outside the tenure system.
Had the adjunct accused of Islamophobia at Hamline received tenure, or at least been on the tenure track, she could not have been dismissed so easily.
Moreover, declining enrollments, soaring administrative salaries, and shrinking state support have created enormous financial burdens on institutions of higher education. The pandemic only exacerbated these issues, and smaller colleges and universities like Hamline have especially struggled. As Hamline’s net cash flow declined, by 77 percent in 2011-15, the university nearly doubled its debt in 2012 by building a $36-million university center in a bid to attract students. In 2016, the credit-rating company Moody’s downgraded Hamline’s bond rating to its lowest investment-grade rating. Faced with dwindling enrollment and retention, the tuition-driven university is now under pressure to keep students happy.
DEI offices tend to reduce complex issues to manageable problems with ready-made responses.
Universities have adopted a range of strategies to ensure students stay enrolled and continue spending money on tuition and campus life. Among these has been a managerial approach to campus diversity. On many campuses, concern for diversity dates back to the era of the civil-rights movement, or even earlier. But formal DEI offices were mostly established at universities in the last two decades, and they saw their budgets explode in 2020 after nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd.
The DEI profession began as workplace diversity trainings aimed at protecting corporations from costly discrimination lawsuits, and it plays a similar role today. As such, it is woefully inadequate for addressing with nuance the racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other real challenges students may face on college campuses and elsewhere. DEI offices tend to reduce complex issues to manageable problems with ready-made responses. The idea that intention (messy, subjective) matters less than impact (objective, measurable), for example, found enthusiastic embrace in the world of corporate HR and DEI, already obsessed with quantifiable metrics like “impact factor.”
Rather than improving overall campus climate, institutions like DEI offices wind up cultivating student fragility — something they need to do in order to justify their continued existence and funding. The more easily students are offended, the more the university needs a robustly funded DEI program to manage them. This vicious cycle plays out on college campuses across the country. Indeed, the Muslim students at Hamline resemble their non-Muslim peers at universities elsewhere. They assert themselves as consumers and ask to speak to the manager when unhappy with the service they’ve received.
That ethos of customer service has prevailed as universities are increasingly run like businesses. Ultimately, DEI is a management strategy, illustrated by the way the university skillfully pitted its “customers” (outraged students) against its “staff” (the adjunct instructor), directing conflict away from “management” (the administration). In years past, authoritarian Muslim states found similar utility in whipping up anger over international cartoon controversies in order to distract from their citizens’ domestic demands.
Yet while this strategy may have appeased the offended students at Hamline in the short term, it has only served to undermine the university’s standing as an academic institution, and may affect its already-rocky financial status as well. The free-speech watchdog FIRE has filed a formal complaint with Hamline’s accreditor over the university’s handling of the incident. And even DEI practices can quickly become problems: In a press conference held in support of Hamline’s handling of the incident, the Minnesota branch of CAIR claimed that the instructor’s warning before showing the painting of the prophet — a “content warning,” in DEI jargon — itself constituted “harm.”
As the university loses its sense of mission and purpose, and as the ranks of administrators like DEI officials grow in ever more disproportion to the faculty, students can hardly be blamed for not thinking of the campus as a space for learning and knowledge, a place where ideas can be debated.
This is the nexus where contemporary strands of Islamic thought and neoliberal management converge. The messy business of weighing context and parsing intentions is simplified in favor of a black-and-white absolutism that is easier to navigate and control. Lost in the balance, of course, is the collective responsibility to think deeply.