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Hamline University fired an art historian last fall for showing a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad receiving Islamic instructions from the angel Gabriel. The dismissal was in response to Muslim students, who were offended by the image and proclaimed that the professor had committed the unpardonable sin of Islamophobia. The story has attracted attention and sparked debate about the dilemma between academic freedom and religious rights.
As a Muslim who has studied Islam traditionally in Yemen and Saudi Arabia and academically at the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania, I am not offended by caricatures of Prophet Muhammad or any holy figure on the matter.
The Prophet of Islam said that “actions are judged by their intent,” a classic principle in the argument of Islamic law. Prof. Erika Lopez Prater, who showed the picture to her class, took precautions to ensure her intention was educational and not comical. For example, in the course’s syllabus, she warned students that prophetic images would be shown in class, and no student objected.
From an Islamic point of view, their actions are to be judged according to their educational intention.
Within the Islamic tradition itself there is a debate as to whether prophetic imagery is permitted or forbidden. Regardless of this debate, however, classroom discussions should not be governed by any particular religious denomination. It is incumbent on the students to have a full discussion about Islam in the classroom. On many issues of Islamic law, Muslim scholars have argued for competing positions ranging from liberal to conservative, beautiful to ugly, tolerant to intolerant.
For example, Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, does not object to showing images of the Prophet Muhammad. He regularly shows such images in his courses at Duke, even without taking the precautions that Lopez Prater took. However, other scholars and leaders may inherently oppose prophetic drawings, regardless of the intent to show them.
Safi fled Iran to the United States at the age of 14. This personal history may have an impact on whether students interpret his behavior as Islamophobic or not. However, Lopez Prater has a different background that may have caused students to interpret her behavior in a hostile framework.
In other words, scholars drawn from Islamic cultures—whether imagined or real, whatever that means—suffer less from accusations of Islamophobia. A white Christian scholar from Boston or Minnesota is more likely to face charges than a Muslim scholar teaching in Cairo or Morocco. This is confusing at best.
US colleges and universities treat foreign and local students differently. In particular, there is a difference between foreign and American Muslims. Foreign Muslims tend to have a different approach to Islam and view the religion from a theological perspective. American Muslims can look at Islam from an identity perspective and be primarily concerned with the politics of representation.
Unfortunately, many US colleges and universities lump these two groups together and often ignore the voices of foreign Muslims.
Many Americans don’t know much about religion in general or Islam in particular. Avoiding a professor who has shown a picture of the Prophet Muhammad will only deter Americans from learning about the tradition of Islam, for fear of exposing themselves to unjustified controversy. However, as a Muslim, I would like more people to explore the history of Islam.
A better way to handle the controversy in Hamline would be to arrange a discussion on the issue of the prophetic caricatures. That would have been a better learning experience for the students.
When I fled Yemen for the United States, I sought a liberal education that would allow me to reconsider the backward views I had learned as a child. I came here to learn how to become a scholar, independently investigating subjects fraught with moral ambiguity. In other words, I was ready to receive an education – not an indoctrination.
Unfortunately, the recent trend in US higher education seems to prioritize political correctness over critical inquiry. It seems to silence intellectual curiosity as we enter the age where religious conformity trumps academic freedom.
Abdulrahman Bindamnan is a Ph.D. Student and Research Associate at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change at the University of Minnesota.