No Offense by Esther Nelson


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.

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Categories: Academy, Activism, Popular Culture, Resistance, Women and Scholarship

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10 replies

  1. Prof. Nelson, thanks for a timely and insightful piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “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.”

    During the years that I taught women’s studies this threat was present because I taught controversially, encouraging students to question patriarchal ideas about what it meant to be a woman…During that time I reached the conclusion that academia was not the place for free expression, and frankly, I was relieved when I stopped teaching.

    This article touched me on so many levels. Thank you.

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  3. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    This blog will be of special interest to university professors and anyone who teachers in a college or public school at a higher level or those concerned about the state and future of education.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “On the other hand, non-Muslims fear coming off as bigots should they question practices happening in the name of Islam… non-Muslims are afraid of being critical in this age of multiculturalism where one’s culture is often viewed as untouchable”. I’ve been thinking about this trend lately. It seems odd to me that a particular concept or practice should be less open to criticism when it’s imbedded in a society, culture , or religion. After all, some of our most pressing social issues present themselves this way. But on the other hand, sometimes it seems like the hesitancy to criticize an institution one isn’t a part of comes from a fear of making unfair assumptions. For example, as an outsider to X ( insert religion, social construct, etc), I may not fully grasp the context or history or motivation behind a certain action/belief/etc, so I don’t want to make a judgement based on merely how something appears to me, without being informed. Hope this makes some sense. I’m curious as to what you think. I enjoyed reading this!

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  5. Hi Cole, Thanks for adding to the conversation. You do bring up a thorny issue. What I’m mainly referring to in this piece is critical thinking or what Irshad (and other Muslims) refer to as ijtihad. You are right that those on the outside of whatever “may not fully grasp the context or history or motivation behind a certain action/belief, etc.” So, a scholar (as well as others) puts all of that under the lens of inquiry, asks questions and does research about a given subject. And yet, sometimes there are some cultural/societal practices that some people begin to find reprehensible. Example: slavery in the U.S. Abolitionists were scandalized and appalled by the practice. But why? Wasn’t slavery an culturally-sanctioned practice? The economy depended on it. God approves of the practice, some said, or else there never would have been the biblical injunction for slaves to obey their masters. Why did some people begin to find slavery reprehensible and work towards abolishing it? Leila Ahmed, professor at Harvard, said in one of her public radio talks a few years ago that religious and cultural practices are not sacrosanct. (My friend and mentor, Nasr Abu Zaid, said something similar, “There ought to be no sacred cows.”) We are evolving so things are always in a fluid state. What was considered to be right, proper, and just at one time is not considered such as time moves on. Leila noted that’s why we have amendments to our Constitution. The writers of the document did not forsee what would be considered “just” down the road and so as our culture developed and moved forward, we needed to adjust our ideas of what justice looks like when manifested within human experience and reality.

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  6. And so we have/are creating generations of people who are allergic to critical thinking. Hence: Trump and his ilk.

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  7. We ALL benefit from a good stretch. Absence of voice and crital thinking is a retardant to Intellectual growth. I enjoyed your post. 💜

    Liked by 1 person

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