Déjà Vu: S.F. State University investigates professor for showing Muhammad picture in class

April 7, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Both FIRE and The Chronicle of Higher Education report that, mirabile dictu, yet another professor is in trouble for showing a picture of Muhammad—this time at San Francisco State University (SFSU).  He hasn’t been fired, but he’s under investigation.  FIRE is of course campaigning to nip this in the bud, and so they have both a blog post about it as well as a four-page letter they sebnt to SFSU letting them know that they’re violating the professor’s academic freedom and that even investigating him is chilling speech and violates the First Amendment (SFSU is a public school).

Here’s the backstory from the Chronicle (the “Muhammadgate” incident is at the very end, part of a longer article about academic freedom).

Maziar Behrooz, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, does not yet know what a teaching decision he made might cost him.

In the fall of 2022, Behrooz was teaching the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700 and showed a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. He’s taught the course, and the image, for years. One student, a devout Muslim, strongly objected, outside of class. His main point, Behrooz told The Chronicle, was that it’s not permissible for an image of the Prophet Muhammad to be shown in any shape or form.

“This is the first time that this has happened,” Behrooz said. “I was not prepared for somebody to be offended, in a secular university, talking about history rather than religion.”

Behrooz said he told the student that, as the professor, he is the one who decides what’s shown in class. The student then complained to Behrooz’s department chair, who broached the issue with the professor, according to Behrooz. He said he explained to his chair that the student’s view is not uniform among all Muslims. The type of drawing he shows in class can be bought at markets in Tehran near holy shrines. Many Shiite Muslims have such drawings on walls in their homes, said Behrooz, who was born in Tehran and has written books on Iran’s political history.

The student also apparently complained to “authorities higher up” at the university, according to Behrooz. The professor said the institution’s office of Equity Programs & Compliance informed him in March that it would investigate the incident and asked him to attend a Zoom meeting.

A staff member in the vice president’s office at San Francisco State told The Chronicle in an email that she could not comment on specific reports or investigations. She instead described the process for assessing reports of potential misconduct. An investigator meets with the complainant to gather information and discuss options, she said. If it’s decided the conduct could violate the California State University nondiscrimination policy, an investigation begins, and both parties are notified.

The Zoom meeting is slated for early April. Behrooz said he’s not overly worried, though he thinks an investigation by this office — which fields reports of harassment and discrimination — is unnecessary. He’s not sure what the inquiry portends. “How it goes from here is anybody’s guess,” he said.

FIRE’s letter is very good, with all the legal citations and bells and whistles, implying that the investigation should end tout suite and requesting that SFSU should respond by April 13.  I sense a lawsuit in the offing, and if SFSU doesn’t stop this investigation, they’ll be in a Hamline-University-like situation where they’ll get negative national publicity and a fat lawsuit filed against them by Dr. Behrooz.  Remember, even an investigation for charges that don’t carry weight, as these don’t, serves to chill speech and is a form of punishment.

It looks like Behrooz is going to at least accede to giving trigger warnings, but he doesn’t seem sufficiently angry! From the Chronicle:

In the meantime, Behrooz is thinking through what, if anything, he should change about his teaching. As a principle, he said he doesn’t think religious groups, or students, should decide how an instructor teaches a course at a secular institution. “But one has to also take into consideration, I think, the sensitivities of some religious people, be it Muslim or otherwise.”

Should he talk about the drawing without showing it? Should he still show it, as he’s done for years? Or, should he offer a compromise — warn students that the image is offensive to some and perhaps allow them to leave the class and come back?

He hasn’t decided, but he’s considering the compromise.

Finally, if you want to send either a boilerplate message to SFSU objecting to this stuff, or confect your own letter (I did the latter), just go to this site (bottom of page) and fill in the form. I wrote my own short letter, which follows. Feel free to appropriate from it if you wish.

Subject: End Investigation into History Professor ImmediatelyDear President Lynn Mahoney (show details) 

I understand that your university is investigating Professor Maziar Behrooz for showing a picture of Muhammad in a class about Muslim history. One student objected because some sects of Muslims consider this forbidden, and now SF State is investigating Behrooz.

I taught on the faculty of the University of Chicago for 36 years, and, unlike you, this university understands the meaning of the First Amendment and of academic freedom. Even investigating this didactic and proper use of the picture is itself a violation of the First Amendment, for it acts to chill speech.
I urge you to not go the way of Hamline University and try to punish this professor, for you will end up like they did: a national laughingstock and an academic embarrassment. Please stop this baseless investigation now.
Jerry Coyne

30 thoughts on “Déjà Vu: S.F. State University investigates professor for showing Muhammad picture in class

    1. Yeah the mob attack on Riley Gaines was awful. Shows that it could have been a lot worse for Dr. Behrooz – he was only offending religious conservatives, imagine if he had offended trans people.

    2. This is is as disturbing as it is ridiculous. Images of Muhammad can be found easily today in illustrated copies of Dante’s Inferno (Canto 28), and a relief sculpture of Muhammad is inside our Supreme Court Building. On the web there are numerous sites called “Mohammed Image Archive”.

      Muslims know this and any attempt to stifle history professors about such images is pure, inexcusable power-gaming that should be ignored. Islam doesn’t rule here.

      That there is even an “investigation” should be considered outrageous & cowardly un-American.

  1. The student, by asking the university to intervene with disciplinary action, is effectively expecting the university to arbitrate on a sectarian difference of opinion over Islamic theological doctrine, and declare one of those sects heretical. And people wonder why religious groups shouldn’t have a controlling power in education?

  2. It’s disgusting that blasphemy laws are now sneaking back into society under the guise of religious “sensitivity.” How long before other religious groups start exploiting the concept to prevent anything even slightly critical being said about them?

    1. As a professor of religious studies, I am concerned about this trend towards censorship in the name of sensitivity. Religious individuals and groups do not have a right to dictate how others speak or behave, and they certainly do not have a right to interfere with the education of others in a public space. “Being offended” is fashionable these days, but it is not relevant to the educational process.

      1. “Religious individuals and groups do not have a right to dictate how others speak or behave,…” I can only smile with a tinge of bitterness since of course that is exactly what has been in the works for decades regarding Roe v. Wade.

  3. Speaking for us members of the Flying Spaghetti Monster religious community, I am deeply offended by any class, whether in History, Art, or Cooking, which shows pictures of pasta. And since neither the Bible nor the holy Koran contains a word about dinosaurs, trilobites, ammonites, or the Burgess Shale, the entire subject of Paleontology is offensive to religious communities. And so are all those Jurassic Park movies. We will soon take these matters up with the Office of Equity Programs and Compliance!

    1. Have you seen some of the colander abuse that goes on on Saturday TV shows?
      More offensive by far than the way that bibles are printed on such conveniently thin, if sharp-edged, sheets of paper.

  4. Behrooz might not know this yet, but the investigation is the start of the punishment (as Jerry said). It’s a *component* of the punishment and is meant to deter other potential transgressors. Behrooz may be fired, suspended, reprimanded, forced to grovel for forgiveness, or demeaned in some other way. The fact that his own university did not shut the door on this but passed it up the chain is telling. Unless FIRE’s letter and letters from your readers have an immediate effect, the punishment will take its sad and nasty course.

    I’ve said this before, but I think that the most effective way to end this is in the form of lawsuits. Lawsuits resulting in millions of dollars in damages, along with the publicity and the resulting loss of reputation, will have a powerful deterrent effect on university administrators—more powerful than the most principled defense of academic freedom. (The fact that this happens at all tells me that the universities are not all that committed to academic freedom in the first place. There are some exceptions.)

    1. At the moment I am a tad more conciliatory about the investigation so far, as it looks to just be a bureaucracy that needs to kick in to cross the I’s, and dot the t’s to make sure everyone feels heard.

      1. One can only hope, but even an investigation is embarrassing to the professor and will hurt his reputation. There’s an injustice here even if it eventually turns out that no charges come of this.

      2. In other words, the investigation is part of the punishment, just as Norman said.

        Mark, when a police officer shoots someone, you need to do an investigation as to lawful use of force. Someone died or was harmed by violence. You owe it to society to find out if it was justified.
        But Prof. Behrooz HASN’T DONE ANYTHING THAT COULD BE WRONG IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!! Normally I don’t yell (capital letters) but anyone who thinks an “investigation” is warranted here just doesn’t get it. Please never be conciliatory to investigations into conduct where no offence is alleged, just someone is offended.

        The danger with these investigations done “just so everyone is heard” is that the aggrieved party expects a win and not a rebuke. Prof. Behrooz will receive some kind of caution or order to reflect EVEN THOUGH HE DIDN’T DO ANYTHING! The complainant will walk away with a smirk at least.

  5. More San Francisco State University news:

    “Women’s Swimming Star @Riley_Gaines_
    has been violently assaulted by TRANS Activists while giving a speech on women’s sports at San Francisco State University.

    A Transgender Male, wearing a dress, punched Riley repeatedly while the Trans Mob chased and harassed her until she was forced to take shelter in a locked room. All because she was speaking about women’s rights.”

    Note: She was also forced to be barricaded inside a classroom to escape the student mob for several hours. It’s an amzaing 2 minute video…


  6. Violence by trans activists bent on silencing the opposition seems to be in the news of late. We had the still-unrespnded-to forcible obstruction of Mr. Wintemute at McGill Law, then the Stanford event followed the next day by Antifa thugs setting themselves upon peaceful protesters in Sacramento. Then Auckland and now San Francisco. An individual punch-up between two men in Canada. Wokewatch Canada writer Shannon Douglas has a theory that violence in the trans cause is a quasi-religious enforcement of a mass-formation abuse psychosis.
    (Don’t let his reference to himself as an alchemist put you off. It’s tongue-in-cheek.)

  7. I second everything Norman wrote in #8 above, with two additions. Even if the “investigation” isn’t punitive, it is a huge waste of time for the “defendant”, which of course dissuades others from doing anything similar. Second, the mere occurrence of a procedure contributes to the power of the DEI bureaucracy. Can suits be brought against DEI bureaucrats for overstepping plausible limits of their remit?

  8. This is always so disappointing. The university needs to let students know it is not against the law to show an image of Muhammad in the United States. It is not illegal to show a caricature of Muhammad. Especially since neither is likely to be a good likeness.

  9. I worked for 22 years at the civil engineering faculty at the La Salle university in my town, teaching geology among other courses. Back in the 90s, when asked about the different hypothesis about the formation of the solar system, a student responded with the Christian myth. I marked that answer as wrong, but he wasn’t happy and asked for a revision. Fortunately for me, the provost (a religious man) told the student (I’m paraphrasing) “you’re studying a science course and you should respond accordingly, leave religious answers to your religion courses”. Professor Behrooz’s answer “I was not prepared for somebody to be offended, in a secular university, talking about history rather than religion” brought back that memory. Students should know the difference.

    1. Good point Rafael but as regards your final sentence, I think there are many cases where students do know the difference but they are just looking for an excuse to be offended.

  10. His main point, Behrooz told The Chronicle, was that it’s not permissible for an image of the Prophet Muhammad to be shown in any shape or form

    It’s not permissible for muslims. If he wants to extend his religion’s rules to everyone else, he himself should be prepared to follow every single rule of every religion that’s practised on earth (or at least by students and staff of the SFSU) from now on.

    I think it’s time for The Satanic Temple to insist on some of its rules and rituals to be followed on that campus to remind everyone that freedom of (or from) religion applys to either everybody or nobody.

  11. One student, a devout Muslim, strongly objected, outside of class. His main point, Behrooz told The Chronicle, was that it’s not permissible for an image of the Prophet Muhammad to be shown in any shape or form.

    If only there were a way for “Jesus ‘n’ Mo” to land in his mailbox on an approximately weekly schedule.
    (Of course we all know that the “Mo” part of the strip is acted by a body double of He Whose Honorifics Should Not Be Parodised. Ever. Not Once. Not In The Slightest.
    Because “The Artist” (Peace Be Upon him) is not a bloody idiot, and has had that disclaimer on the website since the year Dot.)

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