What a pleasant surprise to become acquainted with Samar Habib when she appeared on my newsfeed the other day. According to her biography, she “is a writer, researcher and scholar” as well as “[a] tireless advocate of human rights.” She is also “an expert of international standing on Gender and Sexuality in the Arab world, with unparalleled publications on same-sex love and desire among women and the juncture of Islam and homosexuality.” The Ted Talk I stumbled upon, titled “Let the Scholar Speak, Even if it Scares You,” explores the modern university’s difficulty navigating that murky space between academic freedom (based on scholarship and inquiry) and giving offense (based on fear of decimating a student’s belief system).
Samar is Palestinian, raised in a secular, but nominally Christian, household. Initially, her research focused on the study of sex and gender in the Arab world and gradually incorporated the more specific topic of homosexuality in Islam. At 27 years old, she began teaching her research, showing how the emergence of homophobia in the Arab/Muslim world starkly contrasts with the acceptance of gender and sexual diversity enjoyed in 9th century Baghdad, a vibrant center of scholarship, commerce, and the arts..
The ensuing controversy, based on her assertion that women loved each other sexually and romantically in the Middle Ages, surprised her. After all, we have a body of literature describing it. Samar did contradict some of the emerging theories on gender and sexuality in the academy, taking issue with certain assumptions and conclusions. For whatever reason(s), she found herself silenced by the institution where she taught.
How did this silencing happen? Samar explains that the “corporatization of the university” or the use of a business model to run the academy has shifted the power dynamics within the university from a healthy commitment of advancing knowledge through evidence-based scholarship to students, who are now considered paying customers and, therefore, wield “retail power.”
In the retail world, the customer is not JUST always right, but complaints or accusations against a service-providing employee (the scholar in the academy) function almost identically to actual guilt. It doesn’t matter whether or not a course can actually offend or “corrupt the minds of the young.” What matters to management is that they now have to deal with a student FEELING offended or “corrupted.” A scholar accused of offending nowadays may as well be deemed guilty, much like Socrates—who was accused, tried, and sentenced to death in Athens (399 BCE) for corrupting the minds of the young and denying the existence of the gods.
Management’s next move, using a corporate model, can be to modify or even eliminate the “offensive” course. At times, the professor herself applies self-censorship, thereby modifying the course indirectly. As Samar notes, “We’ve developed a way that we insure that the scholar doesn’t speak in a way deemed injurious or alarming to the prejudices and preconceptions of students and at times even their parents.”
The university, according to Samar, no longer seems to be the best place for us to challenge long-held beliefs and ideas about the world. When the academy models itself along the lines of a modern corporation, management finds it more suitable—in their best interests—to eliminate the scholar rather than expect students to wrestle with “inconvenient truths.”
As an aside, but relevant to the subject, I’ve had to deal with another way this business model operates in the minds of the student “consumer.” One of my students, close to the end of the semester, realized she would likely end up with a “D” for the course. “What do you mean I’m getting a “D?” she shouted. “I’ve paid for this course.” She was incredulous, demonstrating how thoroughly we’ve absorbed this retail mentality in the academy.
When scholars develop and disseminate new ideas by means of their research, they can be accused of giving offense. One need not be a scholar, though, to be accused.
Irshad Manji, a Canadian, openly-gay Muslim, author, activist, and director of the Moral Courage Project (www.irshadmanji.com) writes in her book, ALLAH, LIBERTY AND LOVE, “…being offended is not synonymous with being discriminated against.” Irshad thinks Muslims would be well-served to rediscover ijtihad, “Islam’s own tradition of dissenting, reasoning and reinterpreting.” Moral courage is “the willingness to speak truth to power within your community for the sake of a greater good.” Ask questions. Think critically. Practice ijtihad.
Through her work both inside and outside the Muslim community, Irshad discovered that, on the one hand, Muslims fear dishonoring their community by going against traditional beliefs should they express opinions that differ from accepted norms. On the other hand, non-Muslims fear coming off as bigots should they question practices happening in the name of Islam. In both cases, silence takes center stage in the face of heinous crimes such as honor killings. Muslims are afraid to be critical about their cultural traditions, and non-Muslims are afraid of being critical in this age of multiculturalism where one’s culture is often viewed as untouchable. Rather than “offend,” many choose to be silent.
Irshad tells of a professor at the University of London who said, “If you’re able to predict that something will upset sensitivities, don’t do it.” Irshad disagreed. “His preemptive politeness inoculates people against unspoken prejudices.” When the professor admitted that he sympathized “with the murderous rage of Muslims,” Irshad realized he was “feeling” offended with questions that threatened him and his community. His “feeling” of offense had taken on the stature of a substantive argument much like the mentality that silenced Sahar Habib.
This tension spills over, of course, into our everyday experience. You can hear it when someone complains they are offended because they can’t wish people Merry Christmas anymore. That feeling of offense is a perception that can take on the stature of a substantive argument rather than something to be unpacked, examined, questioned, and discussed. All too often, though, it seems we’d rather be “offended” than stretched beyond our prejudices.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.