Barrett told a Milwaukee talk show host in June that he believed that the U.S. government used "controlled demolitions with explosives" on Sept. 11 to bring down the World Trade Center buildings and later said that the idea of a hijacked plane hitting the Pentagon was "preposterous." He plans to discuss these beliefs over one week of the 15-week course for undergraduate students.Read the whole article. I first found the story mildly amusing, with Barrett's situation characteristic of what's wrong with much in contemporary university teaching. But after surfing the web a bit yesterday, I found the Barrett controversy raising some big questions of academic freedom. The New York Times published an essay by Stanley Fish on the Barrett case Sunday, which is getting a lot of attention among the A-Listers of the blogosphere (for example, see Ann Althouse).
Glenn Reynolds ran a post quoting Aziz Poonawalla (who blogs at http://cityofbrass.blogspot.com):
Reynolds jokes that maybe the University of Wisconsin should hire Poonawalla. For more on Barrett, check out his Wikipedia entry.
This is an affront to me on multiple levels of identity - as a muslim, sure, but also as a proud Badger alumni . . . My beef isn't with Barrett's comments - hey, free speech, whatever - but rather that they reveal a mentality that is very dangerous for a professor teaching introductory Islam. Barrett has a clear agenda and is going to use his class as a vehicle for it. Rather than be taught about the great history of jihad, the critically differing interpretations of it between (as an example) the Umaiyyads and the Fatimids, the students will be taught a bland version of the concept that ultimately takes away the power of jihad as a principle of Islam.
This is my beef with progressivism in general - it seeks to neutralize the power of faith and the vibrancy and potency of its ideas. Islam is not easy. It isn't meant to be distilled into coffee-cup aphorisms or worn on the sleeve. It's not a pet cause to be trotted out in service of political posturing. It means something, it has a real depth and a real heft, but people like Barrett (and bin Laden) cannot allow that wondrous complexity to distract their audience from their own petty agendas.