A Tale of Two Muslim Generations

January 27, 2023

Ismail Royer, Director of RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, recently wrote an essay published in First Things titled, “A Tale of Two Muslim Generations.” In the piece, Royer discusses a recent case at Hamline University in which the school fired an art history professor, Dr. Erika López Prater, after a student complained about the professor’s use of a centuries-old depiction of Muhammad by a pious Muslim artist in her class. Royer argues that the incident reveals a tendency, common among many Muslims today, to view “Islam [as] less a religion with truth claims about the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him than an aggrieved identity group among other identity groups.”

Royer writes:

No orthodox Muslim would be pleased with any depiction of Muhammad, even if it was made with respectful intent. But clearly this case is not just about concern over the risk of iconography or the sanctity of the prophet. According to the student’s statement, her objection is grounded in her wounded feelings, not her vigilance over the sacred. And it is not clear whence the wound to her feelings “as a Muslim” arises, especially given that the image in question was made by a Muslim with devotion and respect. It is even less clear why this image made any impression at all on her feelings “as a black person.”

This case, therefore, is not primarily about a Muslim insisting that broader society observe her faith’s pieties, nor about a student objecting to mockery of her faith. Both scenarios would, of course, raise their own distinct questions about legitimate rights, duties, and expectations in a pluralistic society. But those scenarios would also involve, along with the complainant’s subjective understanding, empirical facts constituting grounds for a claim. In contrast, the gravamen of the offense in the Hamline case is elusive.

Some have described Hamline as representing a contemporary case of blasphemy. This is true only by analogy. Premodern man saw blasphemy as a real affront to the sanctity of God. In modernity, our gaze turned from the divine to the world, and blasphemy was punishable as a threat to religion’s political and social effectiveness. In our postmodern culture, our gaze has turned completely inward. We now see blasphemy as a crime against our new god: the self.

Read the full article: “A Tale of Two Muslim Generations.”