The Continuing Problem of Compelled Expression

A teacher at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota has been fired for showing a work of art depicting the founder of Islam (in conversation with the angel Gabriel). Journalist and essayist Douglas Murray shared the image on his Twitter feed:

That’s right, right here in the good old USA, with its First Amendment codifying the Enlightenment principles of religious and expressive liberty, at an institution of higher learning at the center of which lies the ethic of academic freedom, a teacher was fired from her job by sharing with students a classic of Persian art. (This article from ArtNet provides a detailed summary of the case.)

Islam prohibits graphic depictions of Muhammad. The practice is called aniconism. It is a general principle in Islamic aniconism that images of sentient beings is forbidden. This is an extension of the prohibition of idolatry found in ancient Judaism. Muslims have killed people for showing such depictions. Remember the mass murder of French cartoonists? In 2015, men raided the offices of the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed a dozen people for publishing cartoons offensive to Muslims (Threat Minimization and Ecumenical Demobilization). It was the only time I ever featured the flag of another country on my Facebook profile.

Graphically depicting Muhammad if one is a Muslim may be a violation of religious faith (there is a disagreement over the nature and extent of aniconism in Islam, as the Quran is not explicit about this). But how does this limit the ability of a person who is not a Muslim to graphically depict Muhammad?

You may be a Christian (a lot of my readers are). If so, Islam is not your religion. Yet you are being told to live by the rules of a religion that is not only not your own but that denies key elements of your faith. While Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet in their tradition, they deny that he is the son of God. How can it be that you are required to obey the doctrine of a faith that denies your own?

This is a country with religious liberty. You have a right to your religion or to no religion at all. What about your rights? Muslims are going to come here and take away your rights? You’re going to let this happen? Hamline University president and shill for clerical fascism Fayneese Miller said that respect for Muslim students should supersede academic freedom. What makes Muslims any more special than members of any other religion—or no religion at all?

Hamline University president Fayneese Miller

Erika López Prater, the fired teacher, warned students on the syllabus that her class would contain images of holy figures, including Muhammad and the Buddha. Students were told they could contact her with any concerns about the course material. None of them did. Prater warned her students that a painting containing an image of Muhammad was going to be displayed a few minutes ahead of time, giving anyone who might be offended by such imagery an opportunity to leave the classroom. None of them did. All that amounts to consent.

Aram Wedatalla, the Muslim student who complained about the image.

Instead, senior Aram Wedatalla, a Muslim in Prater’s class and a member of the Muslim Student Association, complained about the image, said she was blindsided by the image. “I’m like, ‘This can’t be real’.” 

Why should a teacher go to such lengths to accommodate those who hold not only ridiculous beliefs but beliefs that are used to subordinate women and medically alter gay males to look like women? Wouldn’t that be unreal? Are we going to avoid showing pictures of Nazi propaganda glorifying Hitler in class because there might be Nazis in the room (not that they would complain)?

President Miller acknowledged in her letter that “academic freedom is very important,” but argued that “it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others.” Actually, academic freedom does come at the expense of the sensibilities of others. That’s sort of the point.

This is where this absurd notion of inclusivity takes us. This is what lies at the end of woke progressive ideology. As I have stated repeatedly on Freedom and Reason, inclusivity is a form of intolerance that sacrifices the diversity of ideas for the diversity of identities. Inclusivity has teachers walking on eggshells and talking like 3rd-graders. What is accomplished via terrorism is also accomplished via inclusivity.

Here’s how we will deal with the problem. You’re a Muslim. Great. Whatever. You don’t like images of Muhammad? Then don’t look at them. One interpretation of aniconism is avoidance of images of sentient beings. Just take a break from your screen (this was an online class). But don’t tell me I can’t see the image and hear about its purpose. Why are you even enrolled in an art history class?

For those who don’t like America’s free and open culture, don’t come to America.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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