Home » Hamline University Reportedly Fires Art History Professor Who Showed Images of Muhammad – JONATHAN TURLEY

Hamline University Reportedly Fires Art History Professor Who Showed Images of Muhammad – JONATHAN TURLEY

by John Hensley


Hamline University in Minnesota is under fire this week for reportedly declining to renew the contract of an art history professor who showed two ancient art images of the Prophet Muhammad. The unnamed professor reportedly warned about the imagery before advancing the slides to allow any offended students to leave. However, the professor was publicly rebuked by Hamline President Fayneese Miller and Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence David Everett before being effectively fired. We have previously discussed how such contractual or “contingent” faculty often face such non-renewal decisions when they are targeted in cancel campaigns.

Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, wrote about the incident in a December 22 essay for New Lines Magazine

Muslims object to showing the image of Muhammad as deeply offensive to their religion. One of the paintings is a depiction of Muhammad with a veil and halo from a 15th century manuscript and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The other is a depiction of Muhammad receiving a divine revelation from the angel Gabriel. That work appeared in an early 14th century manuscript by the statesman and scholar Rashid-al-Din. Gruber wrote that the second image “is considered by scholars, curators and art collectors a masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting … often taught in Islamic art history classes at universities across the world, including in the U.S., Europe, the Arab world, Turkey and Iran.”

According to the student newspaper, The Oracle, the incident occurred on October 6 and drew an objection from a Muslim student. Dr. Everett sent an email to all university employees that the use of the works in class were “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

Professor Gruber raises a deeply disturbing lack of due process by the university. Neither Miller nor Everett evidence the slightest concern for due process or academic freedom as they denounced this professor:

“Neither before nor after these declarations was the faculty member given a public platform or forum to explain the classroom lecture and activity. To fill in the gap, on Dec. 6, an essay written by a Hamline professor of religion who teaches Islam explaining the incident along with the historical context and aesthetic value of Islamic images of Muhammad was published on The Oracle’s website. The essay was taken down two days later. One day after that, Hamline’s president and AVPIE sent a message to all employees stating that ‘respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.’”

Professor Eugene Volokh has posted some of the correspondence. There is also a petition to support this professor.  PEN America has condemned Hamline’s actions.

The now removed defense from the student newspaper was written by Prof. Mark Berkson, Chair of Hamline’s Religion department. Professor Berkson acknowledges that such works must be shown with great sensitivity toward Muslim students:

“First, a majority of the world’s Muslims today believe that visually representing the prophet Muhammad is forbidden. Many observant Muslims would never create an image of Muhammad and will strive to avoid seeing one. So professors must not require Muslim students who believe that representation is forbidden to look at these images, and they must give students fair warning if such images are going to appear anywhere in class—in a book, a slide show, a video, etc. It is my understanding that, in the Hamline class, the professor gave students advance notice that the image would be shown (both in the syllabus and verbally), allowed students to turn off the screen if they wished, and did not require them to visually engage with the painting. The intent was to educate, not to offend or show disrespect.”

However, he insisted that the work was germane and valuable from a pedagogical standpoint. His insightful and respectful letter should be read by everyone before reaching any conclusions in this controversy. The fact that it was removed only adds to the chilling environment of intolerance by Hamline.

The student editors of The Oracle have much to explain in removing the letter. The fact that they will not even allow a reasoned, alternative view to be read is an indictment of their newspaper and journalistic values, though it is hardly unique today. Indeed, it is the same intolerance shown increasingly by mainstream media.

In this now deleted letter, Professor Berkson noted:

“Since some Hamline administrators labeled the showing of the painting “Islamophobic” (in one case, the phrase “undeniably Islamophobic” was used), my question for those who use that word is – Exactly where does the Islamophobia lie? Islamophobia is often defined as fear, hatred, hostility, or prejudice against Muslims. The intention or motivation behind the act would seem to be essential here. In this case, the professor was motivated only to educate students about the history of Islamic art. The professor tried to ensure that Muslim students who have objections would be able to avoid seeing the images. So, when we look at intention, we can conclude that this was not Islamophobic.

Another possibility is that the very act of displaying an image of Muhammad is itself Islamophobic. But if this were the case, there are a number of very disturbing implications. First, it would mean that anybody who showed these images in a classroom, a book, or on their wall, would be an Islamophobe. Any scholar who wrote a book about Islamic art and included these images for discussion or analysis would be an Islamophobe. Even Muslims (and, as we will see, many Muslims throughout history have created and enjoyed these images) would be Islamophobic if they did this. Second, it would mean that these images could never be seen by, or shown to, anybody. In effect, it would require an erasure of an entire genre of Islamic art.

Should no student be able to see this art? And what would it mean for a liberal arts institution to deem an entire subject of study prohibited?

Finally, it seems that the interpretation of the administrators means that if an act is prohibited to members of a particular religion, then everyone has to incorporate that prohibition into their own lives. Let’s quickly consider an analogy. Eating pork is forbidden to observant Muslims and Jews. Clearly, it would be an act of Islamophobia or antisemitism if someone were to intentionally sneak pork into a dish that was going to be eaten by someone for whom it is forbidden. But does this mean that Aramark can no longer serve any dish with pork? Must everyone consider pork forbidden? Most of us would agree that as long as there are plenty of alternatives for Muslims and Jews, then the mere offering of a pork dish is not Islamophobic or antisemitic. In the case of images, does the fact that many (not all) Muslims consider images forbidden mean that all of us have to incorporate this prohibition into our lives? Giving students the opportunity to see the images as part of an education in Islamic art (since using images is an essential part of the pedagogy of art historians) is not Islamophobic as long as Muslim students are not required to see them and steps are taken to ensure that no student sees them unintentionally.”

Professor Berkson is trying to balance interests while striving to preserve the essential academic freedom needed in higher education.

“This incident is about balancing academic freedom and religious commitments, not about Islamophobia. The situation is not helped by making accusations against a faculty member who is simply trying to share and teach the history of Islamic art with students. It is especially disturbing that some administrators who used the word ‘Islamophobia’ never even spoke with the faculty member to get their perspective. When, as in the case here at Hamline, everyone involved has good intentions (intention is a key concept in Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad himself said that people will receive consequences for actions depending on their intentions) and is doing their best to honor principles (religious and academic) that are important to them, we can find our way forward in open conversation and mutual respect.”

In contrast, President Miller and Vice President Everett show utter disregard for countervailing values, particularly free speech and academic freedom. Indeed, they declare that “when we harm, we should listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm.” So, as an academic institution, you do not debate “the merits” of such controversies?

Instead, they insist that “it is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident…respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom…Academic freedom is very important, but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others.”

So academics have academic freedom only to the extent that it is not considered by some to be a denial of care or decency? Notably, that standard is based on how a lecture is received by any student rather than how it was intended.

The Hamline incident is currently being investigated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

While key facts in this controversy must still be confirmed, the public condemnation and the denial of basic due process are entirely incompatible with the conditions needed for higher education.

We have often discussed the rising ideological orthodoxy that has taken hold of our campuses with growing intolerance for opposing views. In this case, the intolerance was expressed in support of a religiously orthodox view over academic freedom.  This was not some random incident of an academic spontaneously and gratuitously insulting a religion. It was directly related to the course and its underlying subject matter. Miller and Everett show little patience or support for such academic interests in publicly disavowing the professor.

The question now is whether other Hamline faculty will stand up to defend their colleague and academic freedom. The non-renewal of this contingent professor’s contract will send a chilling message to all “contingent faculty.” The burden, therefore, must be shouldered by tenured faculty in defending the essential values needed to sustain a vibrant intellectual community.





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