Sunday, July 19, 2015


Ask the Administrator: Pictures of Muhammad

I could feel the urge to duck as I read this one.  A returning correspondent, who is preparing a class on the history of the Middle East, writes:

An issue has, however, arisen regarding one of my new lectures. I happen to have an extremely image-intense lecture style, often showing over a hundred slides in a 50 minute lecture. I confidently assume most of my not-particularly-diverse student body doesn't know anything about Islam. So, I'm doing a lecture explaining the basics of Muhammad's life and teachings. I've therefore made slides showing images depicting various moments in Muhammad's life. On second thought, however, I wonder if showing those images is wise.  

The details matter, so, specifically, I've got (1) a sixteenth-century picture of Muhammad going up to his cave to meditate now held in Topkapi palace museum in Istanbul (2) a fifteenth-century afghan image of Muhammad being visited by the archangel Gabriel, (3) an Algerian postcard from the 1920s showing him hiding from the pagan Meccans in the cave with the spiderweb, and (4) nineteenth-century Ottoman image of Muhammad's army destroying the idols upon the conquest of Mecca. Some of the images show Muhammad without a face: (1) shows him as a white outline with no detail, (4) shows him as a pillar of flame. Image (2) shows him with a face, presumably because it's a shia drawing and one school of shia thought holds that depicting Muhammad before he gives his first recitation is allowed, since before he becomes a prophet he's an ordinary man. Image (4), finally, shows him as a sort of cartoon figure. Image (4) is thus the most sensitive, and the only image not from a Muslim-governed society, but since it's bilingual in Arabic and French, it still seems aimed at a Muslim audience.

The case for showing the images runs as follows. The existence of all these Islamic depictions of Muhammad is itself a teachable moment, because they illustrate that the taboo against depicting the prophet has been more or less strict with time. The shia rule that it's okay to depict Muhammad before his revelations is also interesting. Furthermore, I'm not a Muslim and feel some desire to assert my right to show whatever historical artifacts as I please, given that it's not against my own beliefs to do so. In the 1980s, Adam Michnik, a Polish dissident I admire, urged his fellow Poles to "live as if you lived in a free country," and I've often tried to take his advice to heart. Well, if I lived as if I enjoyed the freedom of speech I think ought to exist, I'd show these historical artifacts: they're cool images that will help explain the points I want to make.

On the other hand, I'm not keen to get in the newspaper as the controversial professor who offends Islam. Actually, I'm not keen to get in the news at all. I'm also not keen to make friends with the Islamophobic types who would applaud me for doing so. Furthermore, I'm very keen to not get death threats, which I suppose is a possibility that can't be ruled out. I like my quiet life, and if I am honest with myself, I must admit that I lack the courage of Adam Michnik. So, perhaps I should censor my own slides, particularly image (4) but possibly (2) as well, and explain to the class that I've done so out of fear. So, those are the options that I've been considering.

Pondering these options, however, I wondered what the stance of the university administration would be. Perhaps the administration would like to not be blindsided by this lecture? So I wrote an email explaining my thinking to the head of school, and asking for feedback from the powers that be. And that's what leads me to write you, oh community college dean: he forwarded the email to a dean and said he'd get back to me, but now, six weeks later, it seems that everybody has simply forgotten about me. The course won't be taught for several months, there's plenty of time ... but I think it's just fallen off everybody's radar. I find being ignored over this issue discouraging and unsettling.

So, while you and your wise and worldly readers may have opinions about the issue of "showing the images" vs. "censoring my own slides," I'm really writing to ask: what do you think about the administration's silence? Do you think I'm right to be upset? Or am I taking it too hard? Should I just ... well, send a reminder?

I’ll start by answering the question that was asked.  Send a reminder.  From an administrator’s perspective, it’s easy sometimes to slip into “triage” mode, especially with email.   That involves sorting emails into “on fire” and “not on fire,” and then (often) forgetting the latter group.  With a topic as complex as this one, the temptation to look at the date, decide it can wait, and move on to something both simpler and more urgent is real.  So I’d start with the simplest, lowest-cost strategy.  You can always raise a bigger stink later.

Of course, they may be quite aware of it, and sort of hoping that it goes away.  A tactful reminder can let them know that it isn’t going away.

In terms of the heart of the matter, I’m thinking this may be the best case I’ve seen for “trigger warnings.”  There’s a strong academic freedom argument for following the research where it goes.  There’s also a strong pedagogical argument for not jamming students’ radar and overshadowing the point of it all.  I’d be inclined to suggest splitting the difference by offering links to the pictures, without showing the pictures themselves, so the students could decide individually whether they wanted to see them or not.  Those students who would be severely offended by seeing it, wouldn’t be subjected to it; those who are curious to see, could.   That would also offer a reasonably elegant opportunity to discuss the point about changing rules, without turning the class into a circus.

In talking with your dean, you might want to raise the possibility of having someone from student services alerted to it, so if a student has a strong visceral response, you’ll have a trained professional at the ready to help them process it.  You also might want to time that particular lecture to avoid certain holidays, since that would just add insult to injury.

The closest parallel to that I’ve dealt with in my own teaching involved historical documents that included what we’d now consider racial slurs.  I didn’t eliminate every source that included them -- history isn’t always pretty -- but I did make a point of providing extra context both before and after.  I told, and showed, the students that I assumed they were adults, and they could handle difficult issues if they chose to.  They always did, which was gratifying.  That said, this case is much more electric, so I’m thinking a little extra circumspection would be in order.

If you come to the discussion from a framework of how best to reach students, rather than how to make a political point, you’ll probably have better results.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.  

I'd be inclined to show them, as they are (a) historical images, not modern drawings, and (b) drawn by Muslims (assuming Ottomans count as Muslim).

You could point out that Christianity had its own iconoclasts (indeed, has had several episodes, including some fringe sects right now).
I've shown images 2 and 3, if I'm thinking of the correct ones (and there are very few out there, so I suppose I am). I never made the news, and I got neither death threats nor kudos. I even got tenure. I did, however, get a working over from my dean, who happened to be observing the class in which I showed image 2. So, yes, I'd definitely recommend a heads-up. I last showed them three years ago, and in the short time between then and now the issue has become even more freighted. Based on my personal experience, be prepared to go to the mat if you really want to display them.

As a fellow historian, I would urge you to be very clear about how and why you're using them, and to repeatedly come back to those motivations to keep everyone focused. I showed image 2 to specifically introduce the idea that Islam was and is a flexible religion, which was the major theme of the universal religions unit in World History I--as you said, these prohibitions vary across time and sect. I showed image 3 as a way of exploring how Islam was represented in a colonial society under the control of a European power. I would be careful about showing them to make a political point, even if that's a small part of your motivation. And I'd definitely stay away from modern cartoon images unless it's part of a lesson on Islam and Europe today--they're intended solely to make people angry and even provoke violence, and don't seem to add much value to class given the controversy. Just my two cents, for what it's worth.
As a professor of Middle Eastern history myself, I see nothing wrong with using these images. The key will be to use them sensitively: Mention earlier in the class that they exist, and say what the provenance is, so they help reinforce points on how Muslims have seen the history you are relating. This clearly distinguishes you from the provocateurs.
One option would be to discuss them in class, explaining the context, and post them online in the course management system so that students can avoid seeing the actual images if they find them offensive... The thing is, often when professors end up on the news, it's not because of that they teach... But rather it's when students don't get the full message.

Posting them on the CMS with a written explanation reinforcing the in-class message leaves no wiggle room for a disgruntled student to mis-understand the fact that these images are appropriate and not a violation of the principles of Islam.
I'd also add this: You are apparently taking a very traditionalist line which assumes the Muslim religious sources convey what actually happened. That is defensible, but the mere fact your approach is so conservative means you have few options with which to show how religious narratives and ideas are constructed even at the most basic level. That is, you'll actively want to do something or other to show how things many people (though not all) take for granted as part of the religion actually aren't. This is part of the questioning-your-beliefs part of education that students of minority faiths may not need as much as those whose beliefs are dominant, but which still does not hurt them.

Some of the images I took when I observed Ashura in Bahrain years ago have the potential to offend certain strains of Sunni, since Shi'ites are far less averse to images of holy figures than the majority sect. Yet understanding Ashura is a key part of understanding Islamic cultures. Sufism is also an intra-Islamic minefield. Students just have to learn that there is more than one way to be a Muslim.
How about just not showing them because he's a respectful person who respects other cultures and other people's beliefs and wishes? Then he can "live as if (he) live(s) in a free country" without the mental gymnastics AND without being a douchebag.
Today's word is "provocateur". (Thanks Brian Ulrich @7:47pm)

Is that relevant to your course? There is a huge difference between caricatures intended to provoke, such as those in Europe that trigger your concerns, and renderings made by those of faith in historic times. The former are of the same cloth as other forms of hate speech or wartime propaganda. (U.S. imagery from the WW II era can be quite disturbing, feeding the race hatred that was prevalent on all sides of that war.) You might teach to the point that the provacateurs have made it difficult to teach this topic, which was not formerly controversial because none of these images were produced to engender hate.

But you should also acknowledge that views about graven images vary among the religions that share the Ten Commandments. Two of the pictures you have actually illustrate this in the case of Islam. That might be the spot where you could give a warning about the next images you are going to show.

By the way, back (way back) in a previous millenium when I was a student, we went to college expecting to see and learn about and discuss things that took us out of the neighborhood we grew up in. I am intrigued even now to learn that some tourist development council or entrepreneur produced that postcard featuring Muhammad! Profiting from the Prophet, like a plastic Jesus on the dash?
How about just not showing them because he's a respectful person who respects other cultures and other people's beliefs and wishes?

Excellent idea. I'll rework my science courses to eliminate evolution. Continental drift has to go as well, of course, as does cosmology. And some of the local Baptists consider modern physics the Devil's work, so I'd better eliminate quantum mechanics and relativity while I'm at it.

Sigh. If you twist yourself to accommodate everyone's wishes, you'll end up as a pretzel and no one will be happy, because people's beliefs and wishes are contradictory. (Often in the same person — the unexamined life and all that.)
I must be well rested right now, or my debate skills have been reawakened by watching trolling as a spectator sport, but Anonymous @10:44am brought the following to mind:

Are your local Baptists upset with modern physics because they buy into the idea that Relativity means physics proved that "everything is relative", leading to the decline of civilization? My replies:

1) Philosophical - Special Relativity actually says "everything is the same". Only motion is relative. The laws of physics are the same whether you are sitting in your living room or sitting in a car or plane traveling at a constant velocity past your living room.

2) Political - Are you suggesting that we reduce our defense capability by not using GPS? We had to understand relativity to make that work.
CCPhysicist, those are indeed some of the arguments I use. Every year. With both the Baptists and administration, which sometimes sounds a lot like Anon@4:21. (Ie. why can't I be 'respectful' and just leave out certain things, or assign them as home reading and don't evaluate them so students aren't forced to learn them?)

Sigh. Every religious sect seems convinced it has The Truth, and I'm supposed to 'satisfy our customers' and teach science without contradicting any of them.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?