Hamline University, a private liberal arts institution in Minnesota, let go an adjunct professor of art history in November. The speaker had presented pictures of the prophet Mohammed last month at a lecture on Islamic art, which is banned by many practicing Muslims.
Devotional paintings of Muhammad, made by Muslim painters in the 14th and 16th centuries, were raised in a classroom setting with careful attention to the sensitivity of the subject, despite Hamline’s determination that the activity constituted a flammable Islamophobic offense.
Taken together, the dismissal exemplifies the insecurity inherent in a higher education system that relies on free will and contingent labor and reflects an invasion of the instructor’s academic freedom by the administration purportedly for the benefit of of the students.
An observant Muslim student who was offended by the footage filed a complaint with Hamline’s administration the day after the presentation. The next day, the professor emailed the student an apology.
The situation became even more heated, however, and on November 7, Dr. David Everett, Hamline’s Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence (AVPIE), emailed the Hamline community in which he labeled the lecture as “undeniably rude, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
Christiane Gruber, a historian of Islamic art at the University of Michigan who has studied figurative depictions of the prophet extensively, published an essay Dec. 22 in New Lines Magazine opposing the definition of the AVPIE.
According to Gruberthe images in question are covered in “Islamic art history seminars at universities around the world,” and Hamline was wrong to characterize this vast historical “corpus of Islamic images of Muhammad, along with their instruction” as Islamophobic.
Dr. Mark Berkson, chairman of the religion department of Hamline Universitywrote a letter to the editor of The Oracle, the university’s student newspaper, on Dec. 6, in support of the professor’s right to free speech. The newspaper’s staff removed the letter shortly afterwards out of concern that it “further[ed] harm members of our community.”
Berkson gave the Daily Beast a letter he had written. “Academic art historians who teach Islamic art must acknowledge and discuss this in some way,” it adds, or students would be “deprived of an enlightening slice of Islamic art history…”
He argued that “anyone who presented these images in a classroom, a book, or on the wall” would be guilty of Islamophobia, including teachers and the Islamic artists and scholars who had traditionally “produced and nurtured” such images of Muhammad.
The consequences “for a liberal arts university” would be disastrous if such a rule demanded the “erasure of an entire genre of Islamic art” and field of study. The chairman and AVPIE of Hamline University in an email to all faculty and staff that they do not believe that “the indefensible” or “material that is offensive” “should be removed from our classrooms and not shared with students”, but that “how we teaching, and how we share images and content matters.”
Some important details are ignored here, such as how the teacher went out of her way to accommodate the students’ religious practices. The professor is quoted in The Oracle explaining the point of the exercise before showing the image: “I’m not showing you this image for nothing.”
In that case, it is generally believed that depictions of holy figures or other figures in Islamic art are prohibited by the religion. It is true that many Islamic societies hold strongly negative views on this, but I would like to remind you that there is no uniform interpretation of Islam.
A two-minute introduction and a substantive warning preceded the visuals in the lecture, and they were also noted in the unit’s build. She claims to have “described each subsequent slide … with language to indicate when I no longer showed an image of the Prophet Muhammad” in her apology email to the offended student, and she also offers time for students of religious faith to turn off the video portion of the online lecture.
However, the AVPIE reported to The Oracle on Nov. 11 that the instructor was “no longer part of the Hamline community” after administrators “determined it was for the best.”
According to Berkson‘s statement to The Daily Beast, the professor had “no communication whatsoever” from the time the AVPIE called the lecture “definitely… Islamophobic” to the time an interview with The Oracle confirmed the professor had been fired. The Daily Beast’s request for a response from Hamline University went unanswered.
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