Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays. To read this newsletter as soon as it sends, sign up to receive it in your email inbox.
From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: The Hamline Scandal Is an Onion With Many Layers
Last semester, Erika López Prater, an adjunct teaching art history at Hamline University, showed a 14th-century image of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on global art history. Some Muslim students complained. Then, as Vimal Patel reported in The New York Times
We’re sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
If you continue to experience issues, contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Last semester, Erika López Prater, an adjunct teaching art history at Hamline University, showed a 14th-century image of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on global art history. Some Muslim students complained. Then, as Vimal Patel reported in The New York Times, she “lost her teaching gig.”
On December 8, Hamline hosted a “community conversation” about the incident led by Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Hussein covered a wide range of topics, but toward the end of the first hour he turned to the real purpose of his speech: the assertion that showing images of the Prophet is, by definition and in every case, “Islamophobic.” “These types of incidents are very common in higher ed. The only reason they exist is because Muslims are not valued the same way other minorities are.” He issued a call for protest: “The moment that incident lingers on, and does not have an overwhelming community response to it, it creates the opportunity that ‘That’s OK.’” Any justification for teaching art-historical depictions of the Prophet, Hussein said, depends on flawed reasoning. “I can come up with the same logic that was used in this to say we should teach pedophilia art in Hamline. I guarantee you no one in the country would welcome that. It’s not that it’s [not] logically sound; it is that it’s wrong.”
When Hussein opened the floor for questions, the first was from Mark Berkson, chair of Hamline’s religion department. “I’ve taught Islam at Hamline for 22 years,” Berkson began. “This event was organized in response to something very particular. This wasn’t hate speech or vandalism or violence.” Berkson’s core objection was that, contrary to Hussein’s claims, there has been historically, and is even now, substantial diversity of opinion within Islam on the extent to which images of the Prophet are forbidden. “What does one do when the Muslim community itself is divided on an issue? There are many Muslim scholars, and experts, and art historians, who do not believe that this was Islamophobic.”
At this point in the video recording of the conversation, a woman’s silhouette moves into view and approaches Berkson; she apparently intends to stop him from talking. “It’s OK,” Hussein said, and Berkson went on: “In this particular case we have a work of art considered a treasure and masterpiece by scholars, painted by Muslim artists for a Muslim king that honors the Prophet —”
Hussein interrupted him. “You can stop.” Then: “Here’s what I’m going to tell you. If you share pedophilia in this school as an art, I’m happy for you to show the picture of our Prophet. But if you don’t do that, then you’re not going to disrespect our Prophet.” Hussein then launched into a long, rather confusing comparison involving Hitler. After all, he said, some people — some white Minnesotans, even — think Hitler was good. But that wouldn’t justify teaching a pro-Hitler class! “If you ask me right now, I’ll come back with a 26-page paper telling you why Hitler was good. That does not make it right.”
Berkson tried to get a word in, but Hussein cut him off. “If you want to know how people respond, you’ve seen what happened in the horrible tragedies of Charlie Hebdo, God forbid what happened at that time and everything else. Muslims revere our Prophet in a meaningful way, and regardless of whatever you are teaching, you have to respect them.”
Perhaps hoping to protect Hussein from himself, Berkson raised his voice: “This was nothing like the cartoon incident!” Hussein broke in again: “You know what? That’s your opinion. But my opinion is it is Islamophobic.” As Patel wrote in the Times, Berkson told him that both the chair of the art-history department, Allison Baker, and David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence, “put their hands on his shoulders and said this was not the time to raise these concerns.”
This is a strange spectacle. A professor of religion is physically prevented by his academic colleagues from sharing the fruits of his expertise at an event on campus. His opponent is neither a religious official nor a scholar, but the leader of a civil-rights organization. Scholarly knowledge is considered here a kind of affront to community feeling. What conventions of etiquette, or what distribution of authority, were in place in order to silence Berkson? Why would CAIR want to appear to sponsor this bullying? And why would Hamline carry it out?
As in so much dispute in academe, at issue here are questions of expertise. Representatives of CAIR do not seem to know, and do not care to learn, that their own knowledge of Islam is sectarian and partial. When I asked Hussein whether there might be some diversity of opinion in the Islamic world over the status of images like the one shown in the class, he was unequivocal: “This image is hate speech and Islamophobic.” Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the organization’s national deputy director, was more circumspect. He allowed that showing an image of the Prophet in an art-history class is not necessarily an act of bigotry, but he also said he was unaware that Muslims anywhere might have, even today, such images hanging in their homes — Muslims like Omid Safi, as reported in Patel’s article in the Times. “That article,” Mitchell told me, “is the first time I’d heard of it.”
I asked Safi, who teaches in the Middle East studies program at Duke and is an expert on devotion to Muhammad, about Mitchell’s surprise. There’s a lot of talk, he said, about the need for interfaith communication, but what’s needed here, he thinks, is “intrafaith understanding and dialogue.” CAIR, he said, can seem like “the only game in town,” which allows it “to present a particular point of view as the one and only point of view.” Other Muslim advocacy groups, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council — which released a statement supporting López Prater — have been more willing to acknowledge, as they put it, “the great internal diversity within the Islamic tradition.” In Iran, Safi told me, images of the Prophet are “readily sold as postcards and posters, not to mention ubiquitous as Facebook images.”
Hussein, conversely, considers showing an image of the Prophet in an art-history class worse than felony mayhem. “Our community,” he told me, “is going to react more to a classroom image showing the Prophet than to 10 mosques that are vandalized.” In a news conference on January 11, Hussein doubled down. “Islamophobia can manifest, such as in the recent incident at Hamline University.” And he praised Hamline’s response extravagantly.
I asked Berkson about Hussein’s position. “There are gaps in Hussein’s knowledge,” he told me. “The most charitable explanation I can give is that he was passionately defending these students, cared a lot about them, and was in a sense assuming that his position was the Islamic position. He didn’t know better.”
Hussein’s position is not the official CAIR position. On January 13, CAIR’s national headquarters released an official statement distancing itself from the Minnesota chapter’s handling of the Hamline incident: “We see no evidence that former Hamline University Adjunct Professor Erika López Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets our definition of Islamophobia.” CAIR’s Minnesota chapter does not yet seem to have gotten the message: On the evening before the national statement went out, the local chapter posted a petition asking readers to “Take Action: Support Hamline University and Its Muslim Students.” According to the petition, “displaying images of the Prophet Muhammad … is not okay, especially in all settings including academia.”
It is true that CAIR, in addition to its core civil-rights work, has long concerned itself with displays of the Prophet; as Mitchell told me, “dating back 30 years, we have always discouraged the display or creation of images of the Prophet, even if they were positive images.” Alexander Jabbari, in a recent essay in our pages, discusses the group’s 1997 campaign to get the Prophet removed from a frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court building. In that case, a prominent Islamic scholar issued a fatwa declaring the frieze permissible. CAIR stood down.
But the group’s core policy of discouraging images of the Prophet hasn’t changed, even though the question of such displays might seem one of theology rather than civics. Safi agreed: “They present themselves as a civil-rights organization for Muslims, and, when it comes to issues of discrimination against women wearing hijabs in the workplace, for example, they’ve done a lot of good. In other ways, CAIR has some explaining to do about how they present themselves.”
Simply put, CAIR’s hard line on looking at images of the Prophet is a contestable position within Islam, not a matter of U.S. civil rights. “Here’s the truth of the matter,” Safi told me. “If they were to come with me to the Met, there are 13 images of the Prophet, two of them on permanent display. Or the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, in Istanbul. Or in libraries in Iran, where they would see them in manuscripts. So the mere fact that they don’t know, that they maybe haven’t bothered to study them, does not negate their existence.”
The Minneapolis chapter of CAIR has certainly not acted as a friend to academic freedom, which it considers a problematic concept. “That Muslim young woman in a classroom,” Hussein told me, “should feel as safe as she would in a mosque.” He endorsed Hamline’s de facto dismissal of the instructor and looked forward to a time when other private institutions would feel compelled to take comparable measures. And he told me that concern over the fate of the instructor was misplaced. “There’s an entire industry that supports those that attack our faith,” he said. “She’s in a better position today than she ever was at Hamline.”
Nevertheless, CAIR can’t ultimately be faulted for anything Hamline did. As Mitchell reminded me, CAIR officials had no direct role in the university’s decision making. They were merely after-the-fact commentators. The Hamline administration alone is responsible for what’s happened. In a January 11 statement, the university’s president, Fayneese Miller, stood her ground: “Academic freedom,” she wrote, “does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior.” In this case, she seems to mean CAIR-Minnesota’s interpretation of Islamic law.
It will always be the case that outside interest groups will attempt to limit academic freedom using whatever tools they have, whether persuasion, protest, or purse strings. As essays in our pages have discussed, fields like Israel studies can become especially susceptible to such interference — as seems to have happened recently at Harvard’s Kennedy School, where the former director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, was denied a fellowship for putative “anti-Israel bias.” (Read our Emma Pettit’s coverage.) Administrators at institutions of every kind, from struggling colleges like Hamline to the richest university on the planet, have made it very clear that only under perpetual duress will they respect the tenets of academic freedom.
Read Alexander Jabbari’s “Where Religion and Neoliberal Diversity Tactics Converge.”
The Review | Opinion
DEI’s Religion ProblemThe Hamline debacle demonstrates the perils of ignoring religious disagreement.
The Review | Opinion
So You Want to Be a History ProfessorIncoming Ph.D. students have a hard time grasping the true career challenges they face.
The Review | Opinion
The Fight for Florida’s New CollegeRepublicans’ destructive chaos clashes with institutional inertia.
The Review | Opinion
Ron DeSantis’s New College Coup Is Doomed to FailHistory offers useful lessons for conservative colleges. The Florida governor is ignoring them.
The Review | Essay
Where Religion and Neoliberal Diversity Tactics ConvergeThe Hamline controversy over a depiction of Muhammad is symptomatic of something deeper.
- “The book is very insightful in showing how, in a period of degeneration, values that once promoted democracy can be distorted so as to work against it. Two prime candidates are authenticity and meritocracy.” In Critical Inquiry, Jonathan Lear reviews Degenerations of Democracy, by Craig Calhoun, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, and Charles Taylor.
- “She is cutting, wary, funny, and wise. Her style is what I wish I had instead of the chipper inner voice I’m stuck with.” In n+1, Max Abelson on a new book of interviews with Janet Malcolm.
Write to me at email@example.com.