Paradkar: Professor’s firing over Prophet Muhammad art offensive — but not because of ‘wokeism’ or ‘cancel culture’

Good column:

The news that a private liberal arts university in the United States fired a professor for showing a painting of the Prophet Muhammad, calling it Islamophobic, should worry us all.

Not because “wokeism” has gone too far or because “cancel culture” has run amok, but because it overrides diversity among Muslims as well as threatens academic freedom and, therefore, democratic ideals. And because the chill is also happening in Canada.

There was nothing woke about Hamline University in Minnesota terminating the contract of Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor — meaning not tenured and working for low or no pay — who in October showed two medieval Islamic artworks in her global art history class. In one, the Prophet’s face is veiled. The other openly depicts Muhammad receiving the revelation of the Quran from the angel Gabriel. To be woke is to be awakened to societal injustices, not to further entrench them.

Nor was cancel culture at play at the university but rather the politics of appeasement, in this case by an institution that, like many, cloaks its reputational risk-management strategy in the language of inclusiveness.

“We have learned, over many years, that knowledge can be shared in a multitude of responsible, thoughtful and respectful ways,” wrote Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, and David Everett, associate vice-president for inclusive excellence, in a letter to the campus on Dec. 9. 

“Respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

A month prior, Everett is reported to have called the lesson “disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

If Islamophobia is hate and discrimination springing from prejudice against Islam or Muslims, how does showing an item that is a treasured part of Islamic history perpetuate that hate?

Many but not all Muslims believe visual representations of the prophet are forbidden, even though the Quran does not explicitly forbid it.

“If Islamophobia is characterized by anything that violates Islamic theology, then we have a problem, because that doesn’t respect academic freedom,” says Anver Emon, a professor at the University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair on Islamic Law and History.

“What is now being conveyed as Islamophobia is deference to certain forms of orthodoxy over others.”

By all accounts, the Hamline lecturer had informed the class beforehand what she was going to show and why, and invited them to bring any concerns to her. The class itself went smoothly.

Still, a student who was also president of the Muslim Student Association complained after the class.

“I’m like, ‘This can’t be real’,” she is quoted saying in the student newspaper. “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.”

I don’t know if the student didn’t hear the teacher prior to class, or saw it as an opportunity to make a point. But it’s clear that, to her, the lesson tied in with the larger issue of not belonging.

I can see that the university had to do something, or be seen to be doing something, and calculated that losing a staff member on contract was far easier than the hard work of changing its culture.

Wrong move. Students complain, as is their right. But universities that are increasingly treating students as customers need to remember they are not always right. Students’ feelings can and should be taken seriously and issues resolved through dialogue and building trust. Not dealt with through human resources. Not used willy-nilly to dictate the curriculum.

A similar class created a furor at the University of Alberta last year. The professor involved is on leave.

Jairan Gahan, an assistant professor, ran afoul of the Muslim Students Association last February, ironically during a class about Islamophobia, after she shared images of a few medieval miniatures commissioned by a Muslim ruler that depicted the Prophet.

Gahan told the Star she was helping students understand why Muslims are so outraged by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of 2012 but may not react as strongly to other Islamophobic instances. “The point was to show this backlash (to Charlie Hebdo) is not just a theological debate. It’s more than that. It’s about moral injury.”

Given that the cartoon depicted the Prophet, she wanted to show historical diversity. To explain “how we have come to believe that there have been no images of the Prophet. Where is this coming from? What was the historical movement behind it? Is it absolute?”

Gahan says she never got to speak to the student or students who complained despite attempts to do so, found her online ratings as a professor affected and ultimately had a fruitless discussion with a Muslim organization that got involved. 

By contrast Emon, like many scholars, has shown images of Muhammad in class without offering prior warnings. He has a PowerPoint presentation that only looks at Islamic art and depictions of the Prophet. He has discussed and displayed the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons from 2005 depicting Muhammad.

The art depicts the Prophet as veneration, as honour and also for courtly purposes, he says. The cartoons, on the other hand, do so for denigration and to exemplify “the unbelonging of Islam and Muslims in Europe.”

“That’s the fundamental difference. And if we don’t account for that, then we ignore how embedded in every single depiction of the Prophet is a politics.”

To Emon, the situation at Hamline is not all that different from the hiring fiasco at U of T law school in 2020, when a major donor expressed objections to its plans to hire the academic Valentina Azarova, who had previously criticized Israel.

Demanding professors not discuss history or politics or religion because it is uncomfortable to some is an unreasonable restriction. 

This should not be confused with seeking an overhaul of language, curricula and practices that continue to harm the historically marginalized.

The former quashes intellectual inquiry. The latter seeks to refine critical thinking and ultimately uphold democratic principles of freedom, equality and justice. 

“We, the academy, are being accused of violating something sacred, not respecting something sacred, but we are not the keepers of theology, nor are we the protectors of theology,” says Emon. 

“We are here as academics to question everything. And if society can’t sustain that, then there goes democracy.”

Source: Professor’s firing over Prophet Muhammad art offensive — but not because of ‘wokeism’ or ‘cancel culture’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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