Not even universities are safe havens for free speech.
A Muslim student’s vandalization of a university seminar’s cartoon exhibit at the Universität Duisburg-Essen (UDE) in Germany’s Ruhr region has once again manifested Islamic intolerance of critical commentary and independent intellectual inquiry. The affair’s aftermath, moreover, sadly shows yet again how democratic public authorities are often less than vigilant in defending freedom against the encroachments of Muslim faith.
The controversy began with the exhibit “What comics can do - Recent trends in graphic fiction,” opened by UDE’s Department of Anglophone Studies (DAS) on May 23, 2013, in the university library. In the exhibit department students used posters to analyze the cartoon genre Graphic Novels. The students examined 14 of these novels in which book-length cartoon series treat mature subject matter.
One of the Graphic Novels examined in collage posters was Habibi, a tale of child (sex) slaves in Muslim Arab society by the award-winning American graphic novelist Craig Thompson. As the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ) reported, this widely available, 2011 published book has aroused no indication “of being orient-hostile.” Thompson himself in a 2011 German interview described Habibi as “among other things a reaction to the increasing Islamophobia in the United States after 2001.”
A Muslim doctoral student, though, complained to library personnel multiple times that the UDE student poster presenting Habibi hurting her “religious feelings.” The Habibi collage showed a rape scene from the book juxtaposed next to the word “Allah” in Arabic calligraphy along with an English-text explanation. The doctoral student, who had previously obtained notoriety by devoting one of her class presentations to “Allah,” finally took it down on June 17, 2013.
The following June 24, the doctoral candidate used scissors to cut out part of a poster analyzing the award-winning graphic novel Exit Wounds by Israeli Rutu Modan. The destroyed book scene, viewable above and in a July 10, 2013 story by Berlin’s left-wing Tageszeitung (TAZ), showed Israeli peace rally participants packing their bags with three signs inscribed with “Stop the Occupation” in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. TAZ author Pascal Beucker speculated that the doctoral student's anger derived from seeing the Arabic language depicted in the much-hated Israel. “It is more than probable,” Beucker suggested in an earlier TAZ article, that the Muslim student had an “anti-Israeli, if not anti-Semitic motive,” given that Exit Wounds deals with the Palestinian terror threat faced by Israelis. The UDE student government publication ak[due]ll, in contrast, countered TAZ, stating that library director Albert Bilo explained to the student senate that the Muslim student took offense at what she considered as a depiction of a sign with “Allah” on it going into the trash.
The vandalism led to a premature closing of the exhibit, described on its website as scheduled to last until the end of July but in various press accounts as only lasting a few more days. DAS also took down an exhibit Internet posting. DAS managing director Christoph Heyl stated that he wanted to avoid any impression of acquiescing in partial censorship. Moreover, Heyl cited a desire to protect the involved students and normal operations of the library. Security concerns at the university could be particularly acute, as that WAZ noted that over one-third of UDE’s student population comes from an immigrant background.
Yet although UDE social sciences dean Dirk Hartmann understood in a July 7, 2013 WAZ story that security concerns prompted the exhibit’s closing in a “heated atmosphere,” he complained that UDE had not yet taken legal action against the perpetrator. Hartmann considered her “active repression of freedom” to be “unacceptable.” Likewise, an internal DAS letter to UDE rector Ulrich Radtke considered the affair’s academic freedom implications “scandalous.”
UDE’s student government (Allgemeiner Studierenden-Ausschuss or AStA) similarly expressed “concern and astonishment” at the exhibit closure. A July 10 Beucker TAZ editorial as well judged university refusal to resume display of the posters as a “scandalous act of self-censorship.” The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and libertarian Free Democrats (FDP) in Essen’s city government also expressed disappointment at the exhibit’s premature end, proposing thereby that Essen’s city hall exhibit the posters.
A July 3, 2013 UDE press release on the affair, meanwhile, emphasized in the words of Radtke that a university could not tolerate “thought prohibitions.” After the doctoral student refused to meet university officials, UDE lodged a criminal complaint on July 10. “Whoever violates hard won basic rights like freedom of opinion and scholarship,” Radtke stated, “must count on serious consequences with us.” Radtke apologized for the delay in bringing charges for property destruction, citing a prudent desire to become fully informed of the case. Already on July 1 the Essen lawyer Marc Grünebaum had brought charges in light of this “attack upon freedom of opinion and art by a religious fanatic,” his letter to authorities stated.
Yet the release stated that Islamic scholars would nonetheless examine how the posters might have offended Muslim sensibilities. Beucker’s editorial deemed this step “ludicrous,” as it “implied that there could be a substantial justification for the censorship.” A less than resounding defense of freedom also came from Ali Nuhi, chair of UDE’s Islamic Student Union (Islamischer Studierendenbund or ISB). Citing UDE Muslim sentiment against the Habibi collage, Nuhi stated that “it was a good sign that the poster was not hung up again.” The two contributions of ak[due]ll on the affair, meanwhile, saw in the matter a need to discuss “anti-Muslim racism.” Such is Germany’s uncertain chorus of freedom as the posters remain concealed from view pursuant to the perpetrator’s original heckler’s veto.
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