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Free Speech

Jacob Mchangama: "Privileging Blasphemy Norms Over Open Inquiry Plays Into the Hands of Religious Fundamentalists"

A broader perspective on the Hamline controversy.


I'm delighted to pass along this item from free speech historian Jacob Mchangama, author of Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, head of the Justitia think tank, and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression:

Hamline University has received considerable backlash for not renewing the employment of a scholar who showed an allegedly "Islamophobic" image of the Prophet Muhammad during an art history class. The university did so, even though the adjunct professor gave ample warnings before and during the class that the image would be shown.

According to an email sent to faculty and students co-signed by the university's president, respect for Muslim students "should have superseded academic freedom."

This is dangerous, particularly for Muslims. By internalizing religious blasphemy norms Hamline has not only repudiated academic freedom, but also played into the hands of religious fundamentalists whose main victims are the very Muslims that Hamline says it wants to protect. The furor caused Hamline´s Board of Trustees to issue a statement on January 13th in which it promises to review its policies with a view to "Upholding academic freedom and fostering an inclusive, respectful learning environment for our students are both required to fulfill our Mission". That Hamline is reviewing its policies and seeking to learn from the debacle it has brought upon itself is a welcome step in the right direction.

The most important lesson to be learned is that academic freedom and tolerance are not conflicting values. In particular subjecting academic freedom to religious blasphemy norms, is a retrograde step betraying a disturbing lack of understanding of how such norms erode and threaten both tolerance and academic freedom.

According to The New York Times, Hamline's decision followed a complaint from a young black Muslim female student of Sudanese origin, who felt that the image targeted both her religion and race and made her feel like she didn't belong. It is understandable that an undergrad student from a minority background might feel insecure and vulnerable when foundational parts of her identity, normally taboo, are being discussed freely in class. But the antidote to feelings of insecurity and marginalization should not be the imposition of religious orthodoxy.

A closer look at how blasphemy norms operate in many Muslim-majority countries demonstrates that they're weaponized to protect oppressive religious and political authorities and disproportionately target heterodox Muslims, religious minorities, and freethinkers.

Take the case of the Pakistani university lecturer Junaid Hafeez who in 2013 was arrested for alleged blasphemous remarks made during class and on his Facebook account, after complaints by Islamist student groups opposed to Hafeez's liberal ideals. In 2019, Hafeez was sentenced to death for violating Pakistan's blasphemy ban against defiling the Prophet Muhammed and has spent close to a decade in solitary confinement since his arrest.

In 2017, Pakistani student Mashal Khan—a devout Muslim—was tortured and beaten to death on campus by a frenzied mob of his peers who accused Khan of blasphemy in online postings.

Such outbursts of intolerance fanned by arbitrary accusations of blasphemy are not limited to Pakistan. In 2022, the Nigerian student Deborah Samuel was lynched and burned on campus by a mob of extremist students for online postings deemed blasphemous to Muhammad.  Scholars in countries including Algeria, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Malaysia have also been jailed, investigated, or sanctioned due to accusations of blasphemy or similar religious offenses.

Unfortunately, these threats against academic freedom and freedom of thought are not new phenomena. In 1992, the Egyptian professor and secularist intellectual Farag Foda was assassinated by terrorists after being labeled an "infidel" and "apostate" by scholars at the highly influential Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo. In 1985, the Sudanese religious scholar Mahmoud Muhammad Taha—who believed strongly that a core tenet of Islam was one of freedom and equality—was executed for apostasy.

His crime consisted in distributing a pamphlet calling for the repeal of Sudan's harsh Shariah laws that discriminated against Sudan's Christians, animists, and heterodox Muslims alike. In the pamphlet, Taha wrote: "It is not enough for a citizen today merely to enjoy freedom of worship. He is entitled to the full rights of a citizen in total equality with all other citizens".

Taha was not only a pious Muslim. He was also black, and thus shared both religion, nationality, and skin color with the Hamline student who claimed that showing a image of Muhammad was offensive to Muslims as well as racist towards black people. Had Taha still been alive, he would likely have disagreed strongly and insisted that the offended student appreciate the opportunity to learn and pursue knowledge in an academic environment committed to equality and free from religious persecution.

Taha might also have encouraged Hamline to live up to the values of freedom of thought and inquiry without which higher learning becomes meaningless and stale. For it is deeply misguided to view tolerance and academic freedom as being in conflict. To impose silence and call it tolerance does not make it so. Real tolerance requires understanding. Understanding comes from listening. Listening presupposes speech.

Fortunately, the Islamic tradition has cultivated a number of early and radical rationalists whose ideas are much more conducive to academic freedom than the stifling atmosphere in countries like modern-day Pakistan and Egypt. A prominent example is the ninth century Persian physician and polymath Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, for whom reason was "the ultimate authority, which should govern and not be governed; should control and not be controlled, should lead and not be led."

Like Taha, al-Rāzī, was highly critical of religious fanaticism's restrictions on free thought and impugned the defenders of rigid orthodoxy: "They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed."

These words are as true today as when they were written more than a millennium ago. Should a 21st century university committed to truth, learning, and the exchange of ideas be persuaded otherwise would be deeply tragic.