Someone asked me last night for an update on the Hamline “Muhammad Painting” case. I’m happy to report that public opinion, in the US at least, seems largely to be going against Hamline, and in López Prater’s direction. Here’s a sample, focused mostly on the American reaction to the case.
In the original post, I’d said that The New York Times article “tells you what you need to know.” That’s almost, but not entirely, true. Eugene Volokh at Reason magazine has reproduced the full texts of many relevant university communications on the controversy, not otherwise reported elsewhere in their entirety–memos, statements, scuttlebutt, etc. Some of the details matter, but none of them really alter anything I said in the original post.
Though López Prater was not “fired” in the stereotypical sense of being terminated without notice in the middle of the semester, I think the communications in Volokh’s post make clear that it’s perfectly appropriate to say that she was fired, whether or not her termination fits the stereotypical description. To be precise: her contract to teach the spring 2023 semester was not renewed, based specifically on the university’s criticisms of her handling of the “Muhammad painting” case. It seems clear that López Prater had a justified expectation of renewal: her department wanted her to teach, but that desire was vetoed by admin. In other words, López Prater was not renewed only because Hamline’s administration took issue with her handling of the painting case, and felt the need to distance themselves from her, whether for reasons of PR, liability, sincere moral conviction, or some combination of the three.
University administrators do not regard non-renewals as “firings” or “terminations,” because as with the fiction of “zero-balance budgeting,” they like to pretend that academic departments somehow wipe the hiring slate clean every semester, with no expectation that any adjunct who taught last semester will be retained next semester.
But this is a deception. Adjunct hiring decisions are, for obvious reasons, made mid-semester, not at the end of the semester; an adjunct teaching during the fall semester will typically get a verbal assurance around October (if not earlier) about whether the department intends to have her back or not in the spring. And if an adjunct is competent, there’s always a strong departmental incentive to keep her on board in a continuous fashion, fall, spring, and summer: every department chair wants an assurance, well ahead of the semester, that next semester’s classes will be covered, so that the schedule can finally be sent for final approval to the registrar. Glitches, interruptions, cancellations, and uncertainty are the bane of a scheduler’s existence. The ideal case is the one in which you invite the adjunct around the end of September to teach a class or two this coming spring; she immediately agrees to do so; and everything happens according to plan. Administrators who interfere with that process have, from the department chair’s perspective, fucked everything up–the one and often the only thing they do well.
It is not plausible to imagine that university departments defer their adjunct hiring decisions for spring until after the fall semester is over, as though spring 2023’s hiring decisions were all being made after Christmas, two weeks before the spring semester was to begin. If that’s your mental picture of adjunct hiring decisions, delete it. If an academic department tells an adjunct that they want her to teach–and it’s clear that López Prater’s department did that–but admin then spends a semester demonizing her, and then announces in December or January that she won’t be coming back, she’s been fired, and any administrator who says otherwise is bullshitting you. If we want absolute Cartesian certainty here, the question to ask is whether López Prater is now eligible for hire at the department’s discretion, not the administration’s. If the answer is “no,” as I’m sure it is, she’s been fired. I only wish someone would put Hamline’s president on the spot, directly ask this question of her, and demand a yes/no answer. That’s the only way to deal with these overpaid bullshit artists.
Universities play these sorts of semantic games all the time: they’ll demonize a faculty member during the term but decline to fire her on the premise that doing so would create too much logistical chaos; they’ll then harvest the instructor’s grades at the end of the term, and terminate the instructor’s employment once they’ve gotten what they need from her. Since everyone without tenure works at will, such terminations give the sweetly innocent impression of a mere “decision not to renew,” which is how administrators often describe them. But that is not, de facto, what they are. They are often (perhaps usually) full-fledged terminations of faculty who have (and have been given) an expectation of continuous employment. I’ve seen far too many of these cases up close, and for far too long, to be fooled by the administrative rationalizations offered for them. The administrators who rely on such rationalizations–“We never fired her; we just happened to exercise our prerogative not to renew her contract after spending a semester demonizing her”–are deceiving the public, and ought to be called out for it. Really, this is a topic of its own that deserves separate treatment, yet another I’ll have to put on my ever-expanding “to-write” list.
Reason’s coverage, as you might expect, has been consistently pro-Prater and anti-Hamline. In a particularly juicy story, Reason reports that Hamline’s accreditation is being called into question.
However, one free speech group has found a way to penalize Hamline: filing a complaint with the school’s accreditor, which explicitly requires that colleges receiving accreditation protect academic freedom.
I wish this gambit had a chance of success, but I highly doubt it. I can say from hard personal experience that accreditors tend to talk a great game about academic freedom, but do not, in the end, give much of a damn about it. My own former institution, Felician University, had been under AAUP censure since 2015 for its violations of academic freedom; when the Middle States accreditation agency visited Felician in 2020 for its once-a-decade site visit, the university pretended not to know that it was under AAUP censure, and Middle States’ accreditors actively facilitated the deception by playing dumb as well. Amazingly, nowhere is it mentioned in the university’s so-called “Self-Study“–not even in its chapter on academic freedom!–that, prior to the site visit, Felician had been under AAUP censure for five years.
It’s a paradox, but playing dumb is one thing university administrators do well. In fact, the connection between university malfeasance and accreditation is another “topic of its own” that deserves separate treatment, one that I hope to discuss at some point in the future, and on which I have an abundance of first-hand experience. Suffice it to say, the accreditation process in American higher education is a scam and a sham of its own.
Back to the good news. As has widely been reported, PEN America has come out in support of Prater:
So has FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:
So has the mainstream press. A typical editorial from the Los Angeles Daily News:
A few specialized scholarly societies have weighed in on Prater’s side, as well. Two examples below.
The Medieval Academy of America goes medieval on Hamline:
Here’s the Middle East Studies Association, which has a reputation (whether warranted or not) for being an institution of The Academic Left:
I’m glad to report that despite some Muslim organizations’ attempt to play the Islamophobia card, that has not been the universal or even the average reaction among American Muslims. The Muslim Public Affairs Council has come out strongly defending Prater:
So have some prominent Muslim scholars. Omid Safi is quoted in the Times article in the original post. Amna Khalid, a historian at Carleton, has this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
I’m sure there are others I’ve missed. The Muslim reaction is particularly heartening because it provides visible counter-examples to the right-wing dogma that American Muslims are, en masse, a reactionary, anti-Semitic, proto-Wahhabi mob awaiting orders from ISIS and the Taliban. That’s hard to square with the reaction we’ve seen.
It’s also heartening because the specifically religious arguments against Prater are frankly idiotic, even from an orthodox Muslim perspective: they’re less an expression of Islam than of ignorance and immaturity. Secular readers might not care about that one way or the other, but one needn’t be a Muslim, or have any sympathy for pro-Muslim apologetics, to want the better argument to prevail over the worse. To accept the anti-Prater arguments as representative of Islam is to accept a totalitarian, dogmatically iconophobic form of Islam as representative of Islam as such. There’s no a priori reason to do that, but that hasn’t stopped a certain brand of right-wing polemicist from fast-forwarding to the desired anti-Islamic conclusion.
This, too–Islamic iconophobia–is a topic that deserves separate treatment. As many scholars have pointed out, there is no clear textual warrant in the Qur’an for a ban on painting, or on producing images of the Prophet. There’s no undeniably authoritative argument in the Islamic tradition to that conclusion, either. The arguments against mimetic imagery, and specifically against creating images of the Prophet, involve highly contestable (and highly contested) inferences from premises themselves drawn from contestable/contested interpretations of the canonical texts. They’re not “obviously true of Islam as such.” I realize that many Muslims adamantly and sincerely believe that Islam prohibits images of the Prophet–I grew up with the dogma myself–but adamance and sincerity are not necessarily truth-tracking attitudes, and don’t by themselves tell us anything about the subject at hand.
Iconophobia is a recurring theme in Islamic history, as it is in the history of Christendom, and in the Western tradition generally. Occasionally, it’s become the dominant strain of Islam or Christendom; at other times, it’s given way to periods of great productivity in the visual arts, both Christian and Islamic. Some of the clearest arguments for iconophobia go back to Plato’s arguments against mimesis in the Republic. Though I’m far from an expert in the subject, by my reading, virtually every argument for iconophobia in the Western religious traditions is in some way a variant on Plato’s arguments, whether influenced by them or not. So iconophobia is no more foreign to “us,” or distinctive to Islam, than Plato is.
And we have our own homegrown versions of it: think, for instance of feminist arguments against pornography, or the now-conventional American taboo on showing the casualties, foreign or domestic, of American military actions abroad. The social media trend of covering up “disturbing” images is an instance of the same phenomenon. In the 1980s, Henry Kissinger famously advised that the first step toward dealing with the Palestinian intifada was to ban journalists (especially journalists with cameras) from entering the occupied territories, so that people would stop seeing what the Israeli government was going to its victims. The problem for Kissinger was not the occupation per se, but the “optics” associated with it; change the optics, and all would be fine.
Here’s another: When I worked in a hospital OR, we did second trimester abortions, i.e., D&Es, or “dilations and evacuations.” As a member of the Environmental Services staff, I was tasked with cleaning up after such procedures. The clinical staff would, after doing a D&E, ritualistically conceal the containers containing the products of conception behind a curtain, as though the sight of the dead fetus represented a taboo of some sort, a contamination of visual space. The ritual made little sense: the cleaning staff had to go behind the curtain to collect the containers and take them to the decontamination room just as surely as we had to take any unconcealed container containing any other bodily fluid. With all due respect, the products of conception do not look any different from the remains of any other surgical procedure: just about every surgical procedure is a bloody mess, and every such mess requires cleaning and sterilization, which is what we did. From whom, then, were the containers being concealed? From everyone and no one. Concealment was an end-in-itself. The sheer sight of containers-containing-the-products-of-conception was “offensive,” and required concealment. That’s all there was to it.
In any case, iconophobia is anything but a straightforward matter. Anyone who wants to discuss it owes us arguments that show some familiarity with the relevant background issues. Whining, crying, race-baiting, and defamations aren’t going to cut it.
This is just a sampling of press pieces and blog posts I managed to canvass in a short search. I’m sure I’ve missed some. This piece in artnet news provides a nice summary, with lavish illustrations to boot, but there’s doubtless more out there.
A Minnesota University Is Under Fire for Dismissing an Art History Professor Who Showed Medieval Paintings of the Prophet Muhammad
While this isn’t precisely an “all’s well that ends well story,” the reaction to the incident has been largely heartening, at least so far. Time will tell how it ends. Or rather, we will, in time.
Thanks to Hilary Persky for the question and discussion that prompted this post.