On April 7, 2023, administrators at San Francisco State University (SFSU) opened a formal investigation into history professor Maziar Behrooz for displaying a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad during an Islamic history course, called “The Islamic World: 1500-1700,” during the Fall 2022 semester.
During the lesson under investigation, Behrooz reportedly gave a content warning to the class that he was going to show the photo, acknowledging that in some Muslim cultures, seeing a depiction of the Prophet in any shape or form is against their practices. After the class, a Muslim student registered their concern first to the department, and then to “higher” university authorities. Behrooz explained to the head of his department that this photo is important in understanding the history of Islamic countries. He also noted that not all Muslims share the student’s opinion, highlighting that this was not only the first complaint since he started teaching the course, but also that the exact photo can be bought in markets throughout Tehran, where he was born, and found in many Shi’ite Muslim homes. SFSU’s Office of Equity Programs & Compliance launched an investigation in April 2023, months after the original complaint.
The Middle East Studies Association and tenured professors at SFSU have spoken up in defense of Behrooz, asking SFSU to drop the investigation. SFSU professors have alluded broadly to several nonpublic instances of academic freedom violations at SFSU.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about an investigation into a professor in retaliation for the exercising of the right to academic freedom during a lecture. State officials and higher education authorities have an obligation not to interfere with expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, investigations stemming from such activity have a chilling effect on academic freedom and materials taught in courses, and undermine institutional autonomy and democratic society more generally.