Traditionally, Muslims forbid artistic depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. This prohibition is not found in Islamic scripture, but it is grounded in the concern that such images would inevitably fall short of the prophet’s dignity and in the fear that iconography could lead to idol worship. This history is relevant to a recent incident at Hamline University, a small Methodist school in St. Paul, Minnesota. The school fired an art history professor, Dr. Erika López Prater, after a student complained that she used a centuries-old depiction of Muhammad in her course. The ancient image, created by a Muslim artist, was made not in mockery, but in a spirit of heterodox piety. Dr. López Prater is now suing the university over its handling of the controversy.
The Muslim complainant in this case, a student in the professor’s class, claims to have been traumatized by the image: “As a Muslim and a black person, I don’t feel like I belong,” she lamented. “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.”
No orthodox Muslim would be pleased with any depiction of Muhammad, even if it was made with respectful intent. But clearly this case is not just about concern over the risk of iconography or the sanctity of the prophet. According to the student's statement, her objection is grounded in her wounded feelings, not her vigilance over the sacred. And it is not clear whence the wound to her feelings “as a Muslim” arises, especially given that the image in question was made by a Muslim with devotion and respect. It is even less clear why this image made any impression at all on her feelings “as a black person.”
This case, therefore, is not primarily about a Muslim insisting that broader society observe her faith’s pieties, nor about a student objecting to mockery of her faith. Both scenarios would, of course, raise their own distinct questions about legitimate rights, duties, and expectations in a pluralistic society. But those scenarios would also involve, along with the complainant’s subjective understanding, empirical facts constituting grounds for a claim. In contrast, the gravamen of the offense in the Hamline case is elusive.
Some have described Hamline as representing a contemporary case of blasphemy. This is true only by analogy. Premodern man saw blasphemy as a real affront to the sanctity of God. In modernity, our gaze turned from the divine to the world, and blasphemy was punishable as a threat to religion’s political and social effectiveness. In our postmodern culture, our gaze has turned completely inward. We now see blasphemy as a crime against our new god: the self.
In the classical view, man was understood as a creation of God whose purpose and happiness consisted in virtue and knowing the creator. Under the effects of the Enlightenment, with liberalism, utilitarianism, and related secular influences, happiness was still seen as the purpose of man, but it came to mean the individual’s subjective pleasures, not the actualization of his divinely created nature. As a result, with modernity, the aim of morality and social order became the maximization of individual pleasure.
Today, liberalism has lost its vitality as notions of truth and morality, unmoored from the divine and lacking the historical conditions that gave rise to liberalism, have become less meaningful on both the left and right. In our contemporary culture, truth is increasingly associated with the power to impose one’s will. This, along with residual Christian notions of individual autonomy and worth, have combined to create our contemporary grievance culture, in which groups jockey for power using the weapon of wounded dignity.
As the Hamline case illustrates, the increasingly tenuous connection to empirical reality has finally been cut: We have crossed over to the pure dream-world of solipsism. Any inquiry into what exactly the aggrieved student in this case found offensive is both futile and beside the point.
To be sure, many of the aggrieved student’s Muslim supporters are clearly embedded in a traditional Islamic worldview. These supporters, including imams and religious scholars in Minnesota, have clearly articulated the ground of their objection to the professor’s action. For them, even a respectfully-intended depiction of the prophet is sacrilegious. Unlike the student, these traditional Muslims are interlocutors with whom it is possible to have a reasonable discussion about how and whether a society can flourish that consists of people with vastly different, even mutually exclusive, beliefs and worldviews. That is because those Muslims tend to be relatively recent immigrants whose old-world upbringing, while giving them what some might consider an unreasonably strident faith, also gives them cultural and theological resources to draw on concerning civic friendship, pragmatism, and reason—even if they are neglecting those resources in this case. The fact that they are recent immigrants allows them to avoid the influence of our contemporary culture, which increasingly rejects not only reason, but reality root and branch.
The involvement of traditional Muslims with the aggrieved student muddies the waters in this case for all concerned. These traditionalists, not to mention outside observers and the public at large, seem to perceive the student as coming from the same place, epistemologically and theologically, as they are. They fail to grasp that their worldviews are mutually unintelligible. This perception obscures the lessons of Hamline for Muslims as well as for broader society.
Over two decades ago, many traditional Muslims made a strategic decision to deploy the rhetoric and tactic of grievance to further Muslim values and interests. That decision had disastrous results for the very community they wished to safeguard. Younger generations, lacking a traditional upbringing, took seriously and absorbed the irreligious premises of that rhetoric. As a result, for many Muslims today—as seems to be the case for the student in question—Islam is less a religion with truth claims about the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him than an aggrieved identity group among other identity groups. And it has left American Muslims unfortunately but justly associated in the public view with the identity politics that contribute to contemporary polarization. The results are secularization and increasing marginalization. Supporting the student in this case merely replicates and compounds the error.
Indeed, even the national office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), where I worked intermittently from 1994 to 2001, seems to have realized that the strident approach of political correctness—which it helped to pioneer—has gone too far. The council has disavowed its application in this case. It has also called for Dr. López Prater’s reinstatement. This stance puts the national office at odds with its Minnesota chapter, which has championed the complainant.
Understanding the theological, moral, and epistemological gulf that often exists between first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants is key to understanding the nuanced positions within the American Muslim community. Acknowledging this gulf can help us have a broader discussion of how American society can remain coherent in the twenty-first century—a time when groups with diverse beliefs about truth and morality are living alongside each other, and the very concepts of truth and morality are rapidly losing their meaning.
Ismail Royer is director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute.
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