When sensitive topics become tense

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Classroom discussion about Islam raises issues of tolerance and credibility.

Story by Abby SiegelContributing writer

On the second day of the semester during an introductory course on American national government, a discussion that touched on Islam prompted one student to take offense and the professor to say he felt threatened.

Winfield Rose, professor of political science, spent that class discussing four key issues he said are facing the United States – a political divide, the national debt, mass shootings and terrorism. And he followed hyperlinks from his syllabus to websites with information regarding each topic. Students wrote down the current figures from a national debt clock and from a website claiming to show the number of deaths caused by jihadi terrorists.

The goal, Rose told the class, was to calculate the differences in each number at the end of the semester, according to accounts from students and Rose.

Rose

Rose

One student, though, objected to the website Rose used regarding terrorism, thereligionofpeace.com. The website describes itself as “the politically incorrect truth about Islam, one really messed up religion” and depicts the prophet Muhammad portrayed as a cartoon Homer Simpson wearing a turban.

When Rose showed thereligionofpeace.com, student Blake Parker questioned what the site had to do with American government. In response, Rose said: “Everything.”

Parker responded by telling the class he was a Muslim, and asked the class to be careful about what they say about Muslims and Islam because some people don’t know the difference between a Muslim and a terrorist.

Parker dropped Rose’s class the next day. Parker declined to go on the record for this article.

Rose, in an interview, said he interpreted Parker’s statement to be a threat.

“This student erupted, and twice he yelled out, ‘You better be careful what you say, I’m a Muslim.’ And I took that to be a threat,” Rose said.  “He dropped the class, which is fine, that saves me the trouble of having him expelled.”

The saga reveals tensions that can sometimes evolve in a classroom when controversial or sensitive issues come up. It also underscores the role a professor has in presenting information that is factual and credible, as outlined in the 2015 Murray State University Faculty Handbook.

Rose said he has never had an issue like this one in his classroom before.

“This is my 48th year – 37th at Murray State. I won the distinguished professor award last spring,” Rose said. “I wouldn’t have gotten that award if I were a sexist, or a racist or whatever. I treat every student equally.”

DISCUSSING TOUGH TOPICS

Josh Adair, assistant professor of English and coordinator of gender and diversity studies, said he believes it is important to address potentially offensive topics in the classroom with sensitivity to create an environment in which students feel able to respond.

“It doesn’t mean we have to agree, but I think that any situation where a student feels they can’t question that or offer a dissenting viewpoint … I think that’s not a good educational environment,” he said. “Learning is difficult, and uncomfortable, and it should be because that is part of the process of growing and changing.”

Many Murray State students come from rural areas and haven’t previously interacted with people of a different culture than themselves, Adair said.

“I think it is really worthwhile for students to confront particularly those clashes of culture because a lot of that is ignorance,” Adair said. “They don’t even understand what it is they think they are taking a stand against.”

This isn’t the first time this semester in which Muslim students at Murray State have sought to address how others describe their religion and customs. Earlier this semester, someone wrote critical graffiti on fliers for the Muslim Student Organization’s “Hijab Day,” in which students could learn what it was like to wear a hijab – a traditional head veil. 

The university hosts more than 500 Muslim students from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Turkey, said Amer Bukhari, president of the Muslim Student Organization.

“Our campus, by all measures, is a campus that laudably embraces students from all walks of life and all backgrounds – we value diversity and inclusion in word and in deed,” said Ihsan Alkhatib, assistant professor of political science.

According to the President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, diversity at the university, in concept, “expects the creation by institutions of a safe, supportive and nurturing environment that honors and respects those differences.”

CHECKING CREDIBILITY

Another key factor that sparked controversy in Rose’s class was the citation of thereligionofpeace.com, which both students and other professors have since questioned.   

“The website privileges the ISIS brand of religion as the authentic Islam,”Alkhatib said.  “Replace the word Muslim with Buddhist, gay, atheist, agnostic, Christian, Jewish or female and the problem becomes clear – it paints a whole group as evil and violent.”

It is the professor’s duty to provide information based on quality sources within the college classroom, according to the Faculty Handbook.

“They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge,” the handbook says. 

Alkhatib said he believes it is the professors’ job to “educate and enlighten,” not to indoctrinate, which he said thereligionofpeace.com attempts to do.

“It has no academic value whatsoever unless one is teaching a course on digital hate and digital islamophobia – then that website would be Exhibit No. 1,” he said.

Students consider the information presented by professors to be credible because of their positions of authority, said Bukhari, the Muslim Student Organization president who is a graduate student from Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

“If you give the students information and you [have a doctorate] they are going to believe you,” Bukhari said. “You give them the wrong information and it destroys the image of Islam.”

Bukhari said many people have an incorrect view of Islam because of how it is portrayed in the media.

“Don’t let the media manipulate your facts or ideas,” Bukhari said. “The Quran says killing one innocent is like killing the whole world.”

That’s one of the reasons the Muslim Student Organization has focused on education, such as sharing posters and Islamic souvenirs at Tent City and last month’s “Hijab Day.” The organization has other events planned, such as an educational event held Thursday night, called “Islam, Racism and the Minority,” in which former University of Kentucky football player Muhammad Saifullah spoke about his experience as a Muslim.

Alkhatib said respectable resources keep track of terrorism around the world, including an FBI database as well as sites from universities and the National Counter-Terrorism Center.

“When we teach, we have to use academic sources and we have to be objective, regardless of our personal views, preferences, biases and prejudices,” Alkhatib said.

He said thereligionofpeace.com used in Rose’s class is “simply a hate group in the form of a website.”   Rose said he didn’t reference any information on the site except for the number that purports to track deaths caused by jihadi terrorists. 

“It is my responsibility as instructor of record for that class and other classes to use my professional judgment about the best way to proceed, and that’s what I do,” Rose said.

He said he was unaware of any other websites that kept a running tab of deadly terror attacks and this was the first time he used the website in class.

BEING OFFENDED

Because possibly offensive issues are important topics in today’s society, they must be discussed in the college classroom. Adair said students should be able to intelligently qualify their opinions based on interactions with people who oppose their viewpoint.

“We don’t have a constitutional right not to be offended,” Rose said. “I really shouldn’t have to defend what I have to do in the classroom. The fact that the student is offended by this offends me.”

But Adair said it’s difficult to avoid offending someone in the course of discussing controversial issues or matters of social differences, whether it’s race or religion. What matters most is how the situation is handled after someone takes offense, Adair said.

If a student feels harassed or discriminated against for any reason, whether student-to-student or student-to-employee, university policy recommends the person contact the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Access.

“If you are offended, fine, but do something that’s more productive than just stewing in the emotion,” Adair said. “It is impossible to get through life without being offended, but offended doesn’t have to mean alienated.”

3 Comments on "When sensitive topics become tense"

  1. I visited the website(http://thereligionofpeace.com/) being meintioned by the professor in class and it compelled me to write this comment. I advise everyone who is reading this that if you want to be respected by others, you should learn to respect the others. Religion should not be discussed in class. I am from Pakistan and Christian Minority in my country is never treated like this as Muslim minority is treated here in United States. Professor has targeted whole Muslim world.

  2. Abby Siegel Kindly take care of what you post publically. Because some issues can catch fire and it's always better to resolve them in secret.

  3. Rose was clearly at fault here. He demonstrated his callous insensitivity which was disrespectful to all the class. Knowing Rose's political leanings and temperament, this unfortunate incident comes as no surprise. He should be reprimanded by his superiors and apologies presented to all the classes which were affected.

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