Everyone OK With Puppies?
By Patrick F. Cannon
You may wonder why I’m illustrating this week’s article with a photo of cute puppies. Well, I thought, who could object to seeing puppies? Then I remembered the more avid members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who would object to the “enslavement” of dogs, cats and other animals for the amusement of their human owners.
In any event, I thought a photo of inarguably cute puppies would be safer than, say, a painting of the prophet Muhammad. As it happens, some, but not all, Muslims object to the visual depiction of the founder of their religion. They think it smacks of idolatry, much as the early Christian protestants did during the Reformation when they painted over and otherwise obliterated the iconography in the cathedrals and churches of Northern Europe.
Erika Lopez Prater, an adjunct professor of art at Hamline University (St. Paul, MN), showed a 14th Century Persian painting of Mohammad receiving revelations from the Angel Gabriel, and got fired for her transgression. This, even though she warned Muslim students beforehand, giving them the choice of watching or not. Since a Muslim student complained anyway, the university saw no other possible remedy than denying Prater a new contract and apologizing to its Muslim students.
As it happens, Hamline is the oldest university in Minnesota. It has a student body of about 1,800, and prides itself on its high ranking among smaller universities. Its mission statement has the usual twaddle about diversity and inclusiveness. I saw nothing in its literature to suggest it has any religious affiliation. Yet, it has decided to give in to religious pressure and commit an afront to academic freedom, thus joining the increasing number of schools that have disgracefully done the same.
What Hamline has done is wrong in so many ways that one hardly knows where to begin. It has decided that the students, not the university and its faculty, are the best judges of what will be taught. As someone who knows something about the history of the visual arts, I can say with some conviction that artists have often tested the limits of toleration. In this case, the 14th Century Persian artist was not doing anything of the kind. What he did was perfectly acceptable for that time and place. But today’s students seem to think history started with them; and that their beliefs are the only ones that matter.
The Muslim students claimed that showing the image was clearly Islamophobic (I’m sure that would have been news to the Muslim artist who painted it). Hamline’s president, Faneese S. Miller, agreed, claiming that respect for Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.” Far too many university leaders seem to be of the same mind. The word “pandering” seems to fit.
The men who founded our republic – some of them religious themselves – understood that religion needed to be separated as much as possible from government and education. We have struggled with this from the beginning. We need to keep struggling. We need only look at countries like Iran and its enemy Israel to see how religion can distort rational public life. If we permit Muslim (or any religious) students to limit what can be taught, where does it end?
Copyright 2023, Patrick F. Cannon