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An art history professor in Minnesota was fired after showing students an ancient depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The dismissal came after a Muslim student complained to administrators that the act was offensive and disrespectful; those school officials eventually agreed. The whole controversy has raised important questions about whether potentially offensive content should be censored from students if there’s a risk of violating their religious sensibilities.

You may recall that, in 2010, there was a massive uproar after cartoonists, bloggers, and even South Park began depicting Muhammad in both innocuous and purposely blasphemous ways. Since depicting Muhammad is considered taboo by many Muslims, the issue was whether their religious beliefs should override everyone else’s freedom of expression. On the other hand, even if Muslims conceded that people had a right to draw whatever they wanted, was it worth drawing something just to get a rise out of an often maligned group?

Over the years, there have been extremists who retaliated in the worst ways, as we saw in France with the Charlie Hebdo shootings in 2015. In 2020, a teacher who showed some of those offensive cartoons as part of a class on free speech was brutally murdered in the same country. Each act of faith-based vengeance leads to another rush of people drawing the image in the same of freedom (or, sometimes, as a way to peacefully infuriate the kind of people who might be offended).

That’s why what happened at Hamline University in St. Paul this past October has been so unusual. It’s nothing like those stories we’re used to hearing.

As Religion News Service explains, a(n unnamed) art history professor was going to show students a “treasured 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s call to prophesy” as well as a second image from the 16th century. He told students in advance he was going to do this. He told them the images of Muhammad would be in the paintings. He also explained that the first painting was created by a Muslim scholar in reverence of the Prophet because it was not taboo to depict Muhammad at the time. Finally, the professor told students they did not have to attend that class if they didn’t want to; they weren’t obligated to sit through that particular presentation.

The Hamline student newspaper The Oracle, which obtained a video of the online class, added even more details:

In the video of the class, the professor gives a content warning and describes the nature of the depictions to be shown and reflects on their controversial nature for more than two minutes before advancing to the slides in question.

The Oracle was able to identify these two images using video of the lecture. The first was a 14th century depiction of the Prophet receiving his first revelation from the archangel Gabriel, created by Rashīd al-Dīn, a Persian Muslim scholar and historian. 

The other depicts the Prophet with a veil and halo. It was created by Mustafa ibn Vali in the 16th century as part of an illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi (the Life of the Prophet), an earlier, Ottomon Turkish epic work on the life of Muhammad.

“I am showing you this image for a reason. And that is that 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,” the professor said before changing to the slide that included these depictions. 

This was not about getting a rise out of Muslims. This wasn’t done to be needlessly provocative. This was done purely to educate students and expose them to ancient works of art.

The professor did everything he could have possibly done to warn students about what they were about to see and why he was doing it.

And yet a student who also happened to be president of the school’s Muslim Student Association complained anyway, arguing that the professor disrespected her. It was an unreasonable complaint from an unserious student.

That alone wouldn’t have been news. A couple of college students complaining about something isn’t news no matter how much right-wing websites would suggest otherwise. It was the school’s response that made everything worse.

A month later, the school responded in an email to students condemning the instructor’s decision as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” according to an email from the dean of students. 

The instructor’s contract was not renewed, and a spring semester class the instructor was supposed to teach was canceled. 

The art history professor was fired for teaching students art history that involved the Prophet Muhammad. All because, despite plenty of warnings and a thorough explanation of why certain images were going to be shown in class and the opportunity to leave the class without penalty, some Muslim students couldn’t handle it.

There are valid discussions to be had about the usefulness of depicting Muhammad, in various ways, in the name of free speech. If it hurts the feelings of peaceful Muslims, is it really worth it? Does having a right mean it must be exercised? What’s the line between free expression and just being an asshole? As someone who once hosted a series of submitted Muhammad drawings in the name of free speech and free expression, I’ll be the first to say I probably wouldn’t do it again, because the point has been made and there are bigger problems to fight. I just don’t see the benefits anymore.

But I can’t see any problem with what this professor did and how he handled it beforehand.

I’m not alone. There’s a petition to reinstate the teacher, started by a professor of Islamic art, and it explains rather well how censoring the artwork in the name of religious tolerance is “imperiling equity in education” for all students. Rather than having an academic discussion about these issues, the school is choosing instead to censor the topic and punish someone who took a responsible stance. Why cave to students who refuse to accept that even other Muslims have taken a different position?

A leader with PEN America, which supports free expression in literature, wrote that “This professor’s contract should be renewed immediately, and Hamline administrators should take an opportunity to remind themselves what academic freedom means.”

RNS even spoke to professors of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies who firmly stood on the other side from Hamline:

“To make blanket statements that this is prohibited, especially the image in question, is absolutely wrong,” said Ali Asani, professor of Islamic religion and culture at Harvard. “It shows illiteracy about religion.”

“I tell students we’re going to be looking at Muslim devotional art,” said Omid Safi, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University. “I know some students may not have seen these before, and some may have even been told it’s not done, but it’s a historic part of the tradition.”

Safi said he doesn’t give students the choice to opt out, as the Hamline instructor did.

Nor should he have to. The purpose of college, at least in theory, is to educate students and expose them to ideas with which they may not be familiar. No professor should be fired for a thoughtful, justifiable lesson about Muhammad (or any other subject) just because a student refused to be educated and administrators prioritized her irrational beliefs over their school’s mission.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.