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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Diversity, Free Speech, and Blasphemy
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
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“For us Muslims,” said Jaylani Hussein, director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on Islamic-American Relations, “it is blasphemy.” Hussein was referring to an adjunct instructor’s display of a devotional image of the Prophet Muhammad in an art-history class at Hamline University. The case has drawn wide interest in part because it seems like a decisive confirmation of a widely perceived disharmony between academic freedom and the demands of diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. Hamline’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence called the display of the image “Islamophobic,” and the wounded feelings of Muslim students were emphasized. (Hamline, which is now being sued by the instructor, has since retracted the accusation of Islamophobia.)
The slide from blasphemy, a religious offense, to an offense against the university’s diversity regime will be taken by some to imply a covert religiosity in the doctrines of the latter — a diagnosis most prominently advanced by John McWhorter, who has called “anti-racism” and its associated bureaucratic institutions “a new religion.” But the historian Joan W. Scott, in a powerful and pithy new essay in our pages, argues otherwise: “This case is not an example of any tension between diversity and academic freedom, but of the confusion between fair treatment of minority students (respect and care for their well-being) and capitulation to religious censorship. The one does not require the other.” Scott, more pointedly than any other commentator on the incident that I’m aware of, insists that the politics animating student outrage at the instructor reflect not “diversity principles” but “religious censorship.”
Scott’s argument, which suggests that to the extent that DEI offices have taken up questions of religious doctrine they have suffered from category confusion, rhymes with the perspective of Shadee Elmasry, who, in an amusing video made for the Islamic education organization the Safina Society, scolds the students who complained: “It’s not Hamline Shariah University. You signed up to go to a secular university.” Elmasry blames the students’ persecution of the instructor on “the woke bug” that causes students to declare, “We’re a minority, we’re being offended.” He denigrates the invocation of “offense,” which, he says, had no place here: “What is ‘I’m offended’? This is haram [forbidden] — it’s not ‘offensive.’ ... To say that it’s offensive is a little bit of a stretch.”
The distinction that both Scott and Elmasry rely on — between religious doctrine, which has no compelling interests in a secular university, and minority dignity, which does — makes a great deal of sense. But as a matter of political history, dignity and hurt feelings are very much at the heart of recent liberal political thinking about blasphemy, if, in the U.S., only informally. In England, which had blasphemy laws on the books until 2008, a fascinating debate that occupied both Parliament and the public in the 1980s predicted in many specifics the application of a diversity-and-dignity model to the concept of blasphemy.
At issue was English common law prohibiting blasphemous offenses against the Church of England. As the legal historian Leonard W. Levy describes in his comprehensive Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred From Moses to Salman Rushdie (1993), early discussions about repealing such laws eventuated in a 1981 Law Commission working paper on the subject. As Levy writes, “The commission believed that ‘the most powerful’ argument in behalf of retaining prosecutions for blasphemy ‘is the effect which it is alleged that insults to religious beliefs may have on those holding such beliefs.’” Commission members saw a distinct threat in what they called “public insults intentionally aimed at religious beliefs whose predominant purpose is to cause distress to believers.” Here, the category of the offendable, although comprised of Christians in a nominally Christian nation, comes to look something like a religious minority in a predominately secular society. While the commission did not ultimately consider that the effect on the feelings of believers was a strong enough justification for retaining the law, it urged that should repeal prove impossible, blasphemy prohibitions must be expanded to cover all religions, not just Anglicanism.
Representatives of various religious groups — Christian denominations not covered by the existing blasphemy laws, as well as both Jewish and Muslim organizations — opposed abolition; their preference was rather for expansion. Parliament failed to do either.
Then, in 1988, Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, which reignited the blasphemy debate in England. Jewish and Christian leaders joined Muslims in condemning the book and sympathizing with the pain it was thought to have caused. The Archbishop of Canterbury said, “I firmly believe that offence to the religious beliefs of followers of Islam or any other faith is quite as wrong as offence to the religious beliefs of Christians.” The World Conference on Religion and Peace urged a law establishing that “all minority religions will be fully protected.” Tariq Modood, in an article called “Religious Anger and Minority Rights,” insisted that “the group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place.” An ecumenical consensus was emerging. As a writer in The Economist put it: “Rabbis, priests, and mullahs are, it seems, uniting to restrain free speech, lest any member of their collective flock should have his feelings hurt.” Nevertheless, blasphemy laws were not expanded — instead they languished on in a state of what Levy called “suspended animation” until 2008, when they were finally repealed. But as a warrant for religious censorship, emotional pain lives on.
Setting the Record Straight
It has been an impressive couple of years for graduate-student organized labor. In 2021, NYU’s graduate students won union recognition, and this month both Yale’s and Boston University’s graduate students voted overwhelmingly to unionize. This put some former grad-student-union organizers in an understandably triumphal mood. As Corey Robin, who had been part of efforts to unionize at Yale in the nineties, put it, “All I can think of is Molly Bloom’s sublime affirmation of, well, life and everything at the end of Ulysses. It’s been a 32-year struggle. Yes. Yes. Yes.”
The flipside of that affirmation is bitterness against both administrators and faculty members who stood in the way. When Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, a former grad-student organizer at NYU, tweeted, apropos the NYU English professor John Guillory’s new book, “I am old enough to remember when John Guillory ratted out every striking teaching assistant in the NYU English department, which he chaired, to the administration, causing them all to be fired and blacklisted from future employment at the university,” his tweet received over 2,000 “likes” and many outraged or disappointed responses (“That’s sad to hear."; “That’s disgusting.”).
Schwartz-Weinstein was repeating an old rumor about the 2005-6 strike at NYU, one which he had publicized on Twitter at least once before. For his part, Guillory flatly denies the accusation: “The charge is utterly untrue,” he told me; to have named the striking students “would have been repugnant to my principles.” Maeve Adams, a graduate student in the English department at the time, sent me emails from the NYU account she still has access to that tend to corroborate Guillory’s claim. These include a departmental resolution “not to report to the administration on the decisions of our graduate students regarding the strike.” Guillory himself sent the text of the resolution to the department. As Adams told me, “The university administration did try to convince striking teachers that their faculty allies were secretly colluding against us, but that was blatant misinformation and, of course, a textbook strike-breaking tactic: Make striking workers feel alone and powerless in their struggle and maybe they’ll just give up. The department repeatedly avowed and actively demonstrated their commitment to protect graduate students. To say otherwise is a misrepresentation of what actually happened.”
Asad Raza, who was one of the strike’s organizers, shares Adams’s conviction that the charge against Guillory is false. On the contrary, he told me, Guillory was “deeply concerned about the fate of the grad students and their careers. As John feared, many of us who were closely involved in the organizing committee left academia (including me). But to say that he contributed to that outflux, rather than tried to prevent it, gets things exactly backwards.”
When I asked Schwartz-Weinstein why he thought Guillory had “ratted out” students, he said it was a “widely shared” understanding at the time. But he has since deleted his original tweet, explaining that he has “no evidence to back it up.” Rumors about naming names have surely circulated privately in the years since the 2005-6 strike. And Twitter is no less an amplifier of misinformation here than in any other area of life.
- “It is not casual hyperbole, insincerely employed and quickly forgotten, that most seriously threatens democratic societies. It is when the denial of legitimate difference congeals into a system of thought, into an ideology which admits only one permissible point of view on key issues, and judges all who fail to share this point of view as ipso facto beyond the pale.” In Liberties, David A. Bell on technocracy and other threats to democracy in a world without politics.
- “Kids who need phonics instruction and don’t get it may pore over a page of Paradise Lost till Christ returns, ... and never become fluent readers.” In the New York Review of Books, Christine Smallwood on the indispensability of phonics in teaching literacy.
- Also in The New York Review of Books, Francesca Wade on Mina Loy: “To her homeless neighbors, whom she often paid to run her errands, she was known as the Duchess.”
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