Monday, January 9, 2023

So was I "islamophobic" by discussing ideas?

Archangel Gabriel revealing the Coran to the prophet

Have you heard what happened at the university of Hamline in Minnesota? 

An instructor displayed the photo of the prophet during an Islamic Art class course, online (the photo can be found in a 14th-century Persian manuscript, the “Compendium of Chronicles”, which is a history of Islam) while explaining exactly what she is going to do and allowing anyone who was to be offended to turn their cameras off. A Muslim student chose to see the image, got offended despite the warning, raised the issue, and the teacher was suspended (it helps that the teacher was on a limited contract, meaning easy to suspend or sack).

So what does this have to do with me?

Remember the Danish cartoons issue in 2005 (here)? They prompted such a huge reaction so much there were manifestations in Beirut. For the anecdote, the mob was so furious, they asked where the Danish embassy was - someone pointed the wrong building (the one before the embassy) and an advertising agency was completely destroyed in the process by the mob all while the embassy had zero issues.

At the time I was giving a course on current events at a university in Lebanon. It was scheduled to be on a Wednesday (while the manifestations occurred on a Sunday). I came with the cartoons in question and when the department secretary saw what I was about to photocopy she strictly said "no, pick another topic". Remember, I had about 35 students, so I immediately researched another topic, printed it and photocopied it. But secretly I also photocopied the cartoons as well.

I went into class and asked the students - "I have two stacks of papers, the Danish cartoons and another topic, which do you want to discuss?" the answer was unanimous - the cartoons. What followed was a smart, educated, civilized conversation about religion, representation and free speech which was way beyond the students' age. I was very impressed. Please note that among the 35 or so students I had 7 Muslims.

At the end of the session I asked "was anyone offended by the talk?". No one raised their hands.

Friday morning I get a call from the administration. I was working then in a company not too far off and the directive was to come "immediately". I indeed showed up and was ushered to the office of the university director. A man who literally embodies the motto "a hand of steel in a velvet glove" - tender, kind eyes which hide a very robust determination.

He briefed me that a student lodged a complaint about me for not respecting her religion, Islam. I immediately went on the attack, told him that yes, the department secretary told me not to discuss the issue in class, but that the discussion that happened in class was mature, respectful and certainly not biased. I also told him that (my literal words) "we should not hide behind our fingers" and that - all students including the 7 Muslims (yes, the girl in question included) thought they were better prepared to discuss the issue with their surroundings following the class.

The director looked at me with his kind eyes - which meant nothing - because the next sentence could have been "please no longer show up at university" or "you were right". Actually the next sentence was "Mr B. come here". The B. in question was the department head who was outside the office door. B. comes in smiling, obviously thinking that I was to be sacked. The director simply deadpans "please go up to the classroom and tell all students that any person who does not wish to discuss ideas is simply not worthy of being in this university, thank you." Then then reverts back to me me and asks "a coffee?".

I truly and unquestionably side with the teacher in the Minnesota incident. Just for your information, banning the representation of the prophet only gained traction after Wahhabism (sponsored mainly by Saudi Arabia) became the dominant intellectual strain in Islam, which was exacerbated by the events of 11 September 2001 as a reactionary measure.

 If I go back to this incident - whose end result - thanks to that incredibly lucid director was in my favor, I cannot but think of that poor professor who - in the name of "diversity" had his or her contract terminated. 

Again for the anecdote, when the furor of the Danish cartoons erupted the next day a Swedish newspaper depicted another cartoons of Jesus and God having breakfast and Jesus holding the Jyllands-Posten in his hands saying to God "they have no sense of humor".

Pity it is no longer an issue of "humor", but of basic respect for discussing ideas. As I said the Sunni strain does not hinder the fact that there are other interpretations in Islam itself which do not fordbid showing the prophet. And by using the pretext of "diversity" the university of Hamline totally eviscerated the word from its meaning. 

These days I wonder if there is any difference between ultra-liberals and super-fanatics.