Magazine article The Christian Century

In Academia, Comments about Islam Remain Risky

Magazine article The Christian Century

In Academia, Comments about Islam Remain Risky

Article excerpt

A recent spate of campus controversies involving professors who made provocative statements about Muslims shows one of two things: a decreasing tolerance for inflammatory speech, or how easy it is for academics to get into trouble. Or perhaps a little bit of both.

The incidents have forced university leaders into the uncomfortable role of deciding the line between protecting free speech and confronting bigotry. Caught in the middle are professors who say their hostility or sympathy toward Islam often results in intimidation or silence.

In December, Harvard faculty canceled two summer courses taught by Subramanian Swamy, an Indian political leader, over his newspaper column titled "How to Wipe Out Islamic Terror" last July that advocated demolishing some 300 Indian mosques and requiring Indian Muslims to prove Hindu ancestry to be allowed to vote.

The article sparked student protests, but though a Harvard spokeswoman called his remarks "distressing," the school took no formal action.

However, when Harvard professors met on December 6 to approve the 2012 summer course catalogue, comparative religions professor Diana Eck moved to strike Swamy's classes. Faculty approved the proposal, effectively taking away Swamy's summer job.

Swamy, who in interviews denied that his comments were hateful, has supporters, including free speech advocates who argue that no matter how repugnant his views may be, he's entitled to them, especially at a university where free speech is essential.

Eck insists that she wasn't disputing Swamy's right to free speech, but rather whether Harvard should employ a teacher who advocates violence and bigotry.

"I don't think it is appropriate for an employee of the university, charged with teaching our students, to openly advocate the suspension of the human rights of millions of Indian citizens," said Eck, who is an India scholar and director of Harvard's Pluralism Project.

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Mujeeb Khan, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written about anti-Muslim hate speech in academia, agreed. "You have a right to say bigoted things, but you don't have a right to expect people to employ you," Khan said.

The Washington-based American Association of University Professors argues in its statement on freedom of expression that no idea or statement can be deemed so hateful as to warrant banning. "An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas--and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant," the 1994 statement says. …

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