Who’s Afraid of a Portrait of Muhammad?

When Hamline University cut ties with a professor who showed a painting of Muhammad, it sided with the most intolerant element of the American Muslim spectrum.

A black-and-white photo of a beautiful old building on a snowy day on the Hamline University campus
Jenn Acker​man / NYT / Redux

A mosque in Kandahar houses a relic of the Prophet Muhammad: a cloak preserved, splendid and unpilled, almost 1,400 years after its owner’s death. The mosque’s caretaker claims that the cloak has extraordinary qualities, such as a color that transcends the visual spectrum. The color can be seen, but it has no name. I asked the caretaker whether I could take a look. He said no; unbelievers may not see it. And even if I did, God would delete the memory from my mind immediately afterward, like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black. So I went home without seeing it—to the best of my recollection.

These tales of the supernatural have no basis in Islamic scripture (except in the general sense that God’s powers are limitless, so if he wanted to produce a technicolor dreamcoat, he could do so). But as a matter of theology, I greatly prefer this version of the Islamic God—who does as he pleases, and simply performs a neurological reboot on those who displease him—to the one that requires defending by Fayneese Miller, the president of Hamline University, a small Methodist school in Minnesota.

Last year, Miller severed Hamline’s ties with an art-history professor, Erika López Prater, after she showed her students a 14th-century Persian painting of Muhammad. A Muslim student complained that she found depictions of Muhammad offensive. The administration agreed that López Prater’s act was “Islamophobic,” and that the offense taken “superseded” any claim that this masterwork of Islamic art needed to be seen to be understood. The punishment: banishment. “In lieu [sic] of this incident,” Hamline’s administration told the student newspaper, “it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.”

After the story ignited the attention of the national media, Miller defended her decision. And the student, 23-year-old Aram Wedatalla, held a press conference where she wept over her distress at having looked at the painting. The usual defenders of academic freedom, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and PEN America, have raced to López Prater’s side. Most encouraging, though, is the range of allies she has found in Muslim groups. Last week, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) supported her unequivocally. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which in the past has focused on its irritation at perceived slights against Islam, likewise called on Hamline to reconsider its position.

Who will save Muslims from their saviors? Miller’s administration pronounced the class “Islamophobic,” and said that such atrocities should prompt the community to “listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm.” In this case, “listening” meant listening to Muslims. The positions of some of the most prominent Muslim advocacy organizations in America now complicate that advice. It turns out that Muslims have different views on this matter and many others, and that the fatwa from the president of a Methodist college in St. Paul, Minnesota, has somehow sided with the most intolerant element of the American Muslim spectrum. Miller invited a Muslim speaker to campus who compared the professor’s art-history class to a pro-Nazi or pro-child-molester class, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Then he suggested that a Muslim might want to kill her, and that these murderous feelings deserved recognition. “You’ve seen what happened in the horrible tragedies of Charlie Hebdo,” Jaylani Hussein warned the faculty and students of Hamline. “Muslims revere our Prophet in a meaningful way, and regardless of whatever you are teaching, you have to respect them.” (Hussein runs a local chapter of CAIR, which distanced itself from his comments—perhaps because “American-Islamic relations” are not improved by reminding people to watch what they say, because some Muslims might want to kill them.)

Perhaps Miller received poor counsel, which led her to assume that all Muslims are reduced to tears when they fail to read the syllabus and cast their eyes upon paintings. But the statement she wrote under pressure last week suggests conviction. She wrote that “faculty have the right to teach and research and … publish under the purview of their peers.” Did she mean “review”? This sentence alone calls into doubt her commitment to academic freedom, because academic freedom is not, in fact, limited by the scrutiny of one’s peers. They can scrutinize all they like. I’m scrutinizing right now. But they can’t stop her from teaching and publishing what she likes. Citing an op-ed published by Inside Higher Ed, Miller went on to say that the right to academic freedom infringed on the right not to be “emotionally, intellectually, or professionally harmed.”

Miller is deferring to the most fragile Muslims. She must think Muslims have skulls like crepe paper, and brains that can be bruised by a light gust of academic inquiry. Such people exist, and her student may be one. But most Muslims—including some who would object strenuously to a depiction of the Prophet—navigate the world without the shelter offered by the Hamline administration. The Muslims I know generally realize that the world is full of insults and challenges, and that education requires willingness to live with them and learn from them. Miller wants to make this resilient Muslim majority, and everyone else, hostage to their most brittle and blubbering brothers and sisters. If any Hamline students really need this kind of protection, I suggest they enroll at a university in Kabul.

Someone once said that Islamophobia is a term invented by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons. This line (falsely attributed to my late colleague Christopher Hitchens) has seemed to me truer at some moments than at others. It certainly seemed to apply during the heyday of the Islamic State, when one could be tarred as an Islamophobe merely for mentioning inconvenient truths about Islam, such as the fact that ISIS’s view of the apocalypse is grounded in Islamic tradition and, like the Christian apocalypse, bloody and unpleasant. The promiscuous use of the term served ISIS well, because many of ISIS’s Muslim opponents looked like petulant weenies, and it was of course delightful for actual bigots, who are happy to see accusations against them diluted.

In defending López Prater, CAIR and MPAC use the term Islamophobia, but their letters are neither fascistic nor cowardly nor moronic. They make encouraging distinctions that elude Miller and Wedatalla. Among them: It matters, morally, whether the giver of offense intends to offend, and whether the offended party has good cause to take offense. People take offense for good reasons and for bad ones, and the mere statement I am offended is worthless without a sound articulation of the cause for offense.

These distinctions are intuitive even to small children. But the instinct to treat Muslims like toddlers, incapable of dealing with unwelcome developments, and therefore in need of protection at all times, is powerful in some quarters. The same patronizing attitude is rarely applied to Christians or Jews or atheists. If any of them objected to a painting in an art-history course, they would be told that liberal education might not be for them, at least not until they can toughen up a little. It is a relief to find that nearly everyone outside the Hamline administration, especially Muslims themselves, thinks Muslims should be held to the same standard. Miller, for her part, answers to no higher authorities than God and the Hamline board of trustees, and I hope one of them someday calls her to account.