Get Religious Fundamentalism Out of the Classroom
Liberals should always oppose religion dictating academics -- no matter what the religion.
There’s been a viral story making the rounds over the past week about a truly egregious incident at Hamline University, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. In a course on global art history, adjunct professor Erika López Prater showed an image of a 14th-century painting that depicted the prophet Muhammad. On the class syllabus, she noted that the course would include images of religious figures, including Buddha and Muhammad, and that students could reach out if they had concerns — none did. Before showing the image, she told students that she was going to show it, and gave them the option to opt out — none did.
And yet for showing the image, she was essentially let go.
The Hamline University story is a shocking one, and it deserves the outrage and attention it’s getting. But it’s only one in a larger body of troubling moves to cater to the authoritarian impulses of religious tyrants — those who want to shut down the kind of intellectual inquiry, academic freedom, and general excellence that make universities what they are, in favor of kowtowing to religious fundamentalism.
For example: Gov. Ron DeSantis is appointing a string of reactionary anti-intellectual nutjobs to the board of trustees of New College in Florida, a publicly-funded liberal arts institution; they plan to turn this venerated institution into a right-wing Christian school (“We want to provide an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values,” anti-education crusader Christopher Ruto, one of the new board members, told Michelle Goldberg). Books were banned 2500 times in 32 states, according to PEN America — and most of these book bans were pushed by conservatives. The effort to ban books that so much as recognize the existence of LGBT people or address racism has gone international, as reactionary, often religious conservatives have been emboldened by right-wing censorship in the US. In North Carolina, a publicly-funded charter school seeks to impart “traditional values” upon its students — which means conservative Christian values. The school requires girls to wear skirts, and seeks to teach its students “chivalry,” which its founder defines as a system in which women and girls are "regarded as a fragile vessel that men are supposed to take care of and honor."
This is all wholly unacceptable in any academic setting. And liberals should stand up against illiberal acts, even when those acts are carried out in the name of a minority religion in the US.
Many American liberals are rightly sympathetic to religious minorities in our country. And certainly people should be free to believe and worship freely without fear of harassment or discrimination (assuming, of course, that the mode of worship doesn’t interfere with the lives of others). Muslims in the United States have been targeted, including by the former president; their entire religion has been smeared and slandered, and some individuals have faced discrimination and even physical violence. Liberals rightly stand against that.
But standing up for a religious minority’s right to exist, believe, and worship freely does not mean leaving all your other values at the door, and allowing the most vocal and conservative members of that minority to demand censorship or compliance with their views.
Which brings us back to Hamline University. After the professor showed the image of Muhammad — a famous painting, and necessary to any course on global art history — a student in the class complained to the administration; other students backed her up, saying that they were also offended, as a conservative but widely-held interpretation of Islam bars Muslims from looking at images of Muhammad.
“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,” the student, Aram Wedatalla, said. But here’s the thing: She was shown the exact level of respect (or, I would argue much more respect) that community members typically ask of each other. She was show much more respect than we require professors show students in the classroom. It’s what she is asking for — that images of Muhammad never be shown, and by extension that everyone else, no matter what their views or beliefs, behave according to her own conservative religious rules — that is profoundly disrespectful, authoritarian, and anti-intellectual.
But because of these insane complaints, the professor, an adjunct, was let go. According to the administration, her decision to show these images — despite contextualizing them, treating them respectfully, and giving students the option to opt out — was “Islamophobic,” and placed on par with hate and bias incidents. In this case, the apparently extremely delicate sensibilities of a handful of little religious tyrants (and their apparent inability to read a syllabus or listen to the professor’s words) “should have superseded academic freedom,” according to an email from the university’s president, Fayneese S. Miller.
The Miller email is truly a startling read. It honestly reads like it was written by a teenage Tumblr user who, having come into contact with some new and exciting ideas about social justice, seeks to impose them widely and lecture perceived wrongdoers gleefully. She writes that “when we harm, we should listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm” and that “The classroom incident is only one of several instances in which their religious beliefs have been challenged” (god forbid a college student has their beliefs challenged). But this is where it goes really off the rails:
As a caring community, there are times when a healthy examination of expression is not only prudent, but necessary. This is particularly the case when we know that our expression has potential to cause harm. When that happens, we must care enough to find other ways to make our voices and viewpoints heard.
Perspectives should be informed, mindful and critical, as befits an education steeped in the tenets of a liberal arts education. We believe in academic freedom, but it should not and cannot be used to excuse away behavior that harms others.
I realize I sound like a crotchety old conservative here, but college classrooms should not be “safe spaces.” They can’t be safe spaces. They should be respectful spaces, and professors and students alike should treat each other with consideration, but “cause no emotional harm” is not, in fact, a value to which academic institutions should aspire, or an ideal they can ever realistically reach — especially when “this is harmful” has become an easy cudgel to use in order to get one’s way.
That email was egregious enough. But illiberal behavior, and the coddling of reactionary religious demands, didn’t stop there. What’s different about this case, though, is that those demands cloaked themselves in the language of social justice and progressive values. Showing the image was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” wrote David Everett, the vice president for inclusive excellence, who also deemed the professor’s actions “unacceptable” and spelled out a plan to deal with.“bias and hate incidents.” To help repair the apparent Islamophobia of showing a Persian masterpiece made by a Muslim for Muslim audiences in class only to students who consented to seeing it, the university would co-host a forum on Islamophobia with the Muslim Student Association.
At that forum, the primary speaker was invited from off campus: Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Hussein, who as far as I know is not an art historian, declared that there was “absolutely no benefit” to the professor showing an image of one of the most famous pieces of Islamic art in a global art history class. The image, he said, “blasphemy.”
“If this institution wants to value those students,” he said, “it cannot have incidents like this happen. If somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library.”
I… am not totally sure where to start here, except to say that college absolutely should “teach some controversial stuff” about Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and literally anything else. When I was in college, my art history professor showed us Piss Christ, The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (a Black Virgin Mary affixed with elephant dung and cutouts from porn mags), and this Robert Mapplethorpe image which is about as explicit as it gets (don’t click that at work or in front of kids!). Part of the lesson was about art causing controversy — both of those images prompted wholesale conservative Christian freak-outs, including efforts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. And liberals, for the most part, were on the side of artistic freedom and expression, rightly pointing out the censoriousness of those who sought to have this art go unmade and un-viewed because they found it offensive.
As far as I know, no one in my art history class whined to the administration that they felt unsafe in the classroom because of blasphemous art. And if they had, I do not think many students would have sided with them.
In college we also read parts of the Bible and the Quran, both texts that one religion or another finds blasphemous. In law school, I took a course on feminist interpretations of Islamic law, which many Muslims surely find blasphemous. This is a good thing; this is one of the reasons the academy exists. (Also, there is no dumber crime or complaint than blasphemy; any all-powerful God can certainly handle her own business and hopefully has pretty thick skin by now).
Take Islam out of it and similar examples make these values clear. When an Orthodox newspaper in New York photoshopped Hillary Clinton out of a famous photograph of Barack Obama and his staff watching the Navy Seals raid that killed Osama bin Laden, there was widespread outrage; if an Orthodox Jewish student complained about seeing images of women in art history class and demanded professors who show images of women be terminated, would we be particularly sympathetic, even if he said we were “disrespecting and offending” his religion? What if a Christian fundamentalist student objected to the teaching of evolution, because it contradicted her belief in Biblical literalism? What if a Hindu student demanded that the cafeteria be fully vegetarian, because meat-eating offended his religious views?
That is what is happening here. The student isn’t saying, “I should have the option to not view these images.” She had that option. She is saying “no one should have the option to view these images, because they offend my particular religious beliefs.”
Sorry, but no.
And yet, still, it gets worse.
College is about inquiry and ideas and testing boundaries; I bet a lot of us held views at 19 that we no longer hold now. If, like me, you were a young progressive person recently armed with the revelatory language of social justice, you probably did a lot of “calling out” and social justice showboating in college (I sure did, and boy was I obnoxious). But the adults in the room are supposed to be the bulwarks, who engage and listen and reflect, but don’t immediately cave to the most asinine of student demands.
Here, most of the adults seem to caved. For example: Nur Mood, Assistant Director of Social Justice Programs and Strategic Relations at Hamline, told the student newspaper that “This [incident is] much deeper and it’s something that in a million years, I never expected that it would happen here at Hamline. I hope this is the last time I see something similar to this.”
Not everyone lined up and agreed that being accused of blasphemy should be cause for losing one’s job in the 21st century. Professor Mark Berkson, the chair of Hamline’s Religious Studies department, wrote an essay for the Hamline student newspaper, which is called the Oracle, defending the professor and asking what, exactly, is Islamophobic about showing a great masterpiece of Islamic art. The Oracle published the essay, but then pulled it. They then published a staff editorial on “Journalism, minimizing harm, and trauma,” which honestly makes me pretty worried about the future of journalism. “Those in our community have expressed that a letter we published has caused them harm,” the editorial says. “We have decided, as an editorial board, to take it down.” The newspaper “will not participate in conversations where a person must defend their lived experience and trauma as topics of discussion or debate.” They continued: “It is not a publication’s job to challenge or define sensitive experiences or trauma. If and when situations arise where these stories are shared, it is our responsibility to listen to and carry them in the most supportive, respectful, safe and beneficial way for the story’s stakeholders and our readers.”
The thing is, though, it is absolutely a publication’s job to tell the whole of a story, even if that story involves someone who said they were harmed or traumatized, and even when that person doesn’t like arguments against their requested reprisal for that harm. The kind of argument put forward by the Oracle (and, more troublingly, by the university’s president) is that any claim of harm or trauma should simply have the power to shut down all conversation or inquiry. And it’s a particularly powerful and insidious argument, especially coming, as it often does, not only after a stand-alone claim of harm, but after a demand that said harm result in a penalty for the person who did the allegedly harmful thing. It positions disagreeing with both a claim and a demand for action as perpetuating that harm. There is no way to respond other than to say, “Yes, you’re right, I am listening.”
But human beings are human. We are often venal, selfish, stupid, power-hungry, and dishonest. And even if a person is being entirely genuine, giving any claim of any harm the total power to shut down inquiry and conversation, and the total power to allow the claimant to set the terms of recompense, is a very very bad and destructive idea.
This isn’t a right-wing “fuck your feelings” argument. It is, though, an argument that feelings are not the sum total of reality, nor worthy of universal deference.
We are in a particular cultural moment where claims of harm and trauma are being taken much more seriously than ever before, especially within liberal and progressive institutions. For the most part, this is a good thing. But there has also been more than a bit of over-correction. It has become clear that claims of harm and trauma can be used to demand change — to get someone fired, to make someone a social pariah, even to put someone in jail. That isn’t always bad — there are plenty of people who fully deserve to be fired, or be pariahs, or go to jail for their bad acts. But it’s not the claim of harm and trauma in and of itself that justifies punishment; it’s the whole story, the context, the actual wrongdoing, and not just the feelings of the person who says they were wronged. We do have to ask: Was this a reasonable act? Is this a reasonable response? Should the person accused of doing harm be penalized, and if so, how?
Unfortunately, the party line at Hamline seems to be that asking those questions — questions that are integral and necessary for truth-finding and anything resembling justice — is itself a harmful act. Allowing any claim of harm to be both unchallenged and a catalyst for punishment quite simply puts far too much power in the hands of potential bad actors — or even good people with silly or bad ideas, who just get too far over their skis.
And yet even after this story broke, the administration appeared to double down.
“To look upon an image of the Prophet Muhammad, for many Muslims, is against their faith,” reads a statement from Dr. Miller. “It was important that our Muslim students, as well as all other students, feel safe, supported and respected both in and out of our classrooms.”
That’s true. But you don’t show someone respect by treating them like a fragile little thing that might shatter if they have to live in the world, surrounded by people with different views and beliefs.
This incident is making headlines because conservatives have latched onto it as another example of left-wing “cancel culture.” But how a conservative interpretation of Islam that gets a sensitive and thoughtful art history lecturer fired is “left wing” is beyond me. It is true, though, that many people on the left have stayed quiet about this one, because, well, one doesn’t want to aid a perceived enemy, and perhaps because we want to be sensitive to Muslims who are undeniably often mistreated in the United States.
But standing up not just for academic freedom but for freedom from religious domination in what should be secular spaces is a core liberal value. That the religious value imposed and used to punish is one that comes from a religion that is in this country a minority shouldn’t actually make a difference here.
The truth is that it’s Christian fundamentalists, not Muslim ones, who hold most of the power in the United States. And they are infiltrating public schools and universities. They are banning books. They are imposing a gender ideology that comes from their particular religious culture. They are demanding that scientific teachings be replaced or supplemented by flat-out Biblical mythology.
Liberals often do stand up to these encroachments, although not always particularly successfully. And there are so many of them that it’s hard to fight the deluge. But it’s still important. And it’s necessary to stand up for the values of secular education, academic freedom and rigor, and intellectual inquiry whenever they face a threat, and whoever that threat comes from.