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Academic freedom and Islamophobia; more double standards?

How is a 14th century Persian painting of the Prophet Mohammed reflective of culture derived from Islamic teachings? Are both mutually exclusive of each other or contextually interrelated?

old books, bookshelf

As a Muslim-American, I wonder: At what point do my conscientious objections to a skewed art history curriculum at a major university take a back seat to academic freedom? How can my criticisms be articulated without getting reduced to cancel culture objections that deny the same basic academic freedom to others? Similar to the freedom of speech, academic freedom is not without lopsided double standards. Students and faculty members alike have natural expectations of academia tying into their first amendment rights. From freshmen to tenured faculty members, an academic institution is a place where people come together to learn and challenge each other’s ideas without exacerbating extremisms or in this case, double standards.

This can prove challenging when tasked with defining entire fields of study on a “consensus driven basis.” At the beginning of each semester, is it not better to challenge students to define fields of study using their own words in the interest of maximizing access to critical thinking? This can better communicate student expectations of curriculum when cross referencing official syllabuses with their professors. It therefore becomes reasonable to suggest a great deal of time turned due diligence goes into selecting works featured in an art history class. The question is: How is a 14th century Persian painting of the Prophet Mohammed reflective of culture derived from Islamic teachings? Are both mutually exclusive of each other or contextually interrelated?

Omar Alansari-Kreger
Omar Alansari-Kreger
Was the “scholarly rationale” used for selecting this work designed to capture a cultural or religious teaching lesson? What relationship does the same Persian painting have with the Islamic history of Iran? Was the work celebrated when it was unveiled by the artist or widely condemned? Artists cannot control reactions to their artwork unless they seek to capture a specific moment in time and space, but there are no guarantees. Are Muslim-American communities consulted as “advisory liaisons” by America’s colleges and universities to aid in shaping curriculum developed to teach Islam to college students, including those seeking to teach art history? As a nation, are we truly interested in garnering genuine Islamic perspectives on the issues before rushing to accelerate metanarratives designed to exclude Muslim participation that purport Islamophobia?

We cannot discuss academic freedom without going all the way. The billion-dollar question is how do you understand hate without preaching and exporting it simultaneously? If an academic institution wanted to feature an interactive symposium on the psychology of hate from the 20th century, would it be advisable or appropriate to feature Nazi degenerate art doubling up as antisemitic propaganda to capture German modernist art from the 1930s in a world where casual displays of swastikas are considered offensive? It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest academic administrators of said institution would seek consultation from the local Jewish community to find the best way to feature such content without minimizing the legacy of the Holocaust, but why stop there? As a nation, do we not have a moral responsibility to teach the harsh realities of history to deny the potential holocausts of the future?

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How many people understand hate without parroting some social justice trope they saw on social media? For the longest time, true academic freedom as we enjoy and understand it in America, did not exist in other parts of the free world like Germany. Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” is often referenced by historians as one of the most dangerous books in the world. In Germany, it was banned for 70 years. Publishing rights were reinstated as recently as January 2016, but does Hitler’s magnum opus alone capture the “ideological totality” of Nazism? After all, one man alone is not singlehandedly responsible for the Holocaust. Why not facilitate a “scholarly screening” of the musings of Nazi propaganda minister by readings from the “Goebbels Diaries” to better understand the darkness of fascist thinking from 1933 to 1945? This could be concluded by targeting the idiolect of the architect of the Holocaust himself, Heinrich Himmler.

A major American university like Hamline could petition the Hoover Institution at Stanford University to digitize the “Himmler Papers” to create an “interactive exhibit of hate” to give wokeism a serious run for its money with a “Never Again Project.” The reality is such things are not done. Rather, they are summarily refused and denied citing antisemitism. Academic freedom means having knowledge not to repeat the genocidal blunders of history, but it also means not favoring a culture of critical thinking over another when on many levels, Islamophobia is simply a passive rehearsal of antisemitism.

Omar Alansari-Kreger, of Richfield, is a Muslim American activist and writer.