Most of All, Hamline's Decision Offends Me as a MuslimRoundup
tags: Islam, art history, academic freedom, fundamentalism, academic labor, adjunct professors
Amna Khalid is an associate professor of history at Carleton College and host of the podcast Banished.
Something happened, right here in Minnesota, that I find deeply offensive.
On October 6, during a class on Islamic art that was part of a global survey course in art history, a professor at Hamline University offered students an optional exercise: Analyze and discuss a 14th-century Islamic painting that depicts the Archangel Gabriel delivering to the Prophet Muhammad his first Quranic revelation.
Before showing a slide of the painting, the instructor issued a content warning and spent over two minutes providing context about the controversies surrounding depictions of Muhammad. “I am showing you this image for a reason,” the professor explained. “There is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.”
A senior in the class, who is also president of the Muslim Student Association at Hamline, later complained that pictorial depictions of Muhammad offended her Muslim sensibilities: “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.” In an email aimed at addressing the student’s concerns, the professor reminded her: “I did not try to surprise students with this image, and I did my best to provide students with an out … I am sorry that despite my attempt to prevent a negative reaction, you still viewed and were troubled by this image.”
Explanation notwithstanding, the complaint set in motion the DEI bureaucracy on campus, and on November 7, David Everett, associate vice president for inclusive excellence, called the classroom exercise “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.” Just days later, on November 11, Everett told the student newspaper in an interview that because of the incident, “it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” By all accounts, the professor was not given any opportunity to explain the rationale behind the class exercise.
On December 6, Mark Berkson, chair of Hamline’s department of religion, published a letter in the student newspaper explaining the historical context of such images in the Islamic tradition and the importance of engaging with the images for academic inquiry. “In the context of an art-history classroom,” Berkson wrote, “showing an Islamic representation of the Prophet Muhammad, a painting that was done to honor Muhammad and depict an important historical moment, is not an example of Islamophobia.” Two days later, his letter was taken off the newspaper’s website. Shortly thereafter, Hamline’s president, Fayneese Miller, and David Everett sent a joint message stating that “an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes” in the class — and that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”
This case offends me on many levels:
As a professor, I am appalled by the senior administration’s decision to dismiss the instructor and pander to the students who claim to have been “harmed.” This kind of “inclusive excellence” permits DEI administrators to ride roughshod over faculty knowledge. The administration’s blatant disregard for and active suppression of the very thing an institution of higher learning is valued for — the specialized knowledge of its faculty — makes this “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory,” in the words of PEN America.
As a historian, I am shocked that Hamline’s administration cannot appreciate that the image is a primary source and that a class on art history, by definition, necessitates engaging with primary sources; this is the heart of the historian’s craft. Barring a professor of art history from showing this painting, lest it harm observant Muslims in class, is just as absurd as asking a biology professor not to teach evolution because it may offend evangelical Protestants in the course.
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