This past May, Eboo Patel and Ayad Akhtar held the panel “Matter of Offense” at the PEN World Voices Festival. Image Credit: PEN World Voices Festival.
From the literary world to college campuses, the relationships between art, identity, appropriation, and free speech are hotly contested. Increasingly the value of freedom of expression is ranked in opposition to the harm caused by certain forms of speech that are believed to undermine the dignity and humanity of marginalized communities. In an intimate dialogue, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, novelist, and President of PEN America Ayad Akhtar (Homeland Elegies) and Interfaith America Founder and President Eboo Patel (We Need to Build) explore the climate of self-censorship facing writers, question whether marginalization is a useful category in art, and discuss the dangers of sacrificing freedom of expression to the shifting social and cultural mores of the day. This conversation was presented by the PEN America World Voices Festival in partnership with the Creative Writing Program at the Schools of Public Engagement on May 11, 2023. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Ayad Akhtar: Today’s dialogue is part of an ongoing conversation that Eboo and I are engaged in. We’re both trying to make sense of where we sit in the configuration of intellectual and artistic inquiry, institution-building, and an emerging politics of marginalized identitarianism. We’re both implicated as leaders of institutions and as so-called people of color—you wouldn’t take issue with that, would you?
Eboo Patel: I’m curious about the category “people of color.” Maybe we’ll talk about that later. That is indeed how we are described.
Akhtar: We first met at Union Theological Seminary, maybe 10 years ago, where you gave a talk that really marked me intellectually. And the subject of your speech was reading your own religious faith by the light of other religious faiths. The examples included Dr. King’s inspiration from Hinduism and particularly Gandhi, and Muhammad’s first experience of revelation.
As the conversation around appropriation within artistic and cultural production has become increasingly—well, to me—unhinged, I think a lot about the speech that you gave, and the idea that somebody would borrow the religious ideas of another tradition to understand their own.
Patel: It is impossible to understand the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without the influence of Gandhi and Hinduism. When King is a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, he goes to a talk on Christian love by a great Black intellectual named Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. And Johnson presents Mahatma Gandhi as the epitome of Christian love in the twentieth century. It totally revolutionizes King’s understanding of both nonviolence and Christianity.
Is it appropriation for a Black Christian college president to frame Gandhi as a Christ-like figure? And for King to then ask the question: If this is a Christ-like figure whose approach to ending British colonialism was nonviolence, what does that mean for me as a Christian?
I look at that as part of the beautiful process of cultures and religions learning from one another. But as you say, I think in our contemporary era, the knee-jerk take is that it’s appropriation. I think that there’s something deeply lost when we cannot learn from cultures that are different from our own, both on their own terms and in ways that reframe and scramble our own terms. Imagine the young Martin Luther King Jr., 20 years old, sitting in Philadelphia, thinking to himself, Boy, am I really a Christian? Is Gandhi a better Christian than me? Have I gotten this Christianity thing wrong? That’s a profound moment.
Akhtar: To understand the analogy, I think of myself as a still-believing Muslim in my late adolescence and put myself in a context in which somebody is trying to tell me that a non-Muslim figure is the most Muhammad-like person. I can imagine bristling and I can imagine the contradictions that you’re talking about.
When I think about the idea of appropriation, I don’t think about it day-to-day from a religious perspective, I think about it from the perspective of making art. And the example that I’ve used of late is Antonin Artaud, who wrote The Theatre and Its Double in the early part of the twentieth century, which was inspired by him going to a performance of a sacred Balinese dance, and not having any clue what he was watching and misinterpreting it in all kinds of Orientalist ways that we would find deeply objectionable today.
But that inspiration led to the writing of The Theatre and Its Double, which then led to the flowering of the greatest avant-garde theater tradition in Europe and later in America, maybe the most vital theater culture since the English Renaissance. So much of what I do as a writer is misreading people and stealing from them. I’m inspired by Shakespeare: 70 percent of the words in King Lear are taken from another play, written by somebody else. That’s kind of Appropriation 101.
Patel: I think that might be called “copying.” [Laughs.]
Akhtar: So this conversation between you and me, which has been ongoing now for a few weeks, began because of something that happened at Hamline University.
Patel: It had been a minute since we talked, and then the situation at Hamline happened, and I had to call you to both express how angry I was and to hear what you thought about it.
Here’s what happens at Hamline. A professor in an art history class shows a piece of art from the fourteenth century: a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The professor had issued two warnings, one in the syllabus, and one at the top of class. It is a very well-known piece of art in both Islamic civilization and in art history. It was commissioned by a Muslim ruler, and it was done by a pious Muslim. It’s not deliberately transgressive, it’s part of the canon both in certain traditions of Islamic piety and in art history.
In the class, a Muslim student feels marginalized and brings the situation to the diversity director at this campus. It kicks off this whole series of events, which winds up with this adjunct professor of art history not having her contract renewed. In the adjunct world, that’s known as being fired.
Then there’s a local expert brought in, an advocate from the American Muslim community, who compares presenting depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to Nazism and pedophilia. A professor of religious studies from Hamline stands up and tries to make the case like, Look, this is a part of the humanities canon. It’s also a part of Islamic piety and devotion. The academic dean of the college puts her hand on this gentleman’s shoulder and says, This is not the time for this. And the guy’s like, We’re a college. This is not the time to bring scholarship to bear? And then an all-campus email was sent out by the director of DEI [Diversity Equity and Inclusion] saying that this professor had basically committed a racist act and would no longer be a part of the community. So not only does the art history professor get let go for doing her job, but she is humiliated.
Even a novelist of your talents would have had quite the time articulating a case that so perfectly encapsulates what I think are the excesses of our era.
Akhtar: It would only work in satire, I think.
You know, 30 percent of the student body [at Hamline] is East African Muslim. It’s a university that relies on tuition much more so than larger institutions that have endowments. There’s a customer service dimension to the pedagogy. I think that is probably part of the story.
Patel: The reason I think that this encapsulates what I would call the excesses of our era is that if there is an opportunity to frame the situation as “I have found a racist and I found a victim,” everything else stops. And a professor of religious studies can’t even stand up and say, Actually, this is part of the tradition in art history and in Islam, and there are literally hundreds of millions of Muslims today for whom that is not just beautiful but devotional. This is where I come up with the line that you have disliked, but I will use it anyway as an entrance: dogma devours diversity.
Akhtar: I don’t dislike it. It’s just—it’s a sound bite. A sound bite makes me stop thinking. And I want to keep thinking.
Patel: I encourage you to keep thinking. [Laughs.] Here’s what I mean by that. The depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is a form of devotional and artistic expression in Islam—
Akhtar: For some—
Patel: For some, precisely. It is a part of a diverse set of understandings of how you approach, understandings of the Prophet Muhammad in Islam. One of them is you depict the Prophet. Another is you don’t depict the Prophet. If one set of people is able to claim marginalization, then the conversation stops. And there isn’t even an inquiry into what others might think about this and whether we could be in a situation where the best framework isn’t around marginalization, but multiple legitimate and conflicting expressions.
It is a legitimate thing for a Muslim to say, You shouldn’t depict the Prophet Muhammad. I understand that. I respect it. That cannot stop somebody else from depicting the Prophet, right? Diversity is not just the differences you like, and a diverse democracy has to be able to contend with the expression of person X feeling like a violation of person Y. And the category marginalization is not the easy way out all the time.
Akhtar: It seems increasingly that we are in an environment in which the response to speech that I find objectionable, that marginalizes me, is not different speech or better speech on my part or a counterargument, but to suppress speech. The conversation about free speech today seems increasingly to be about whose free speech is not appropriate.
I’m a non-Muslim Muslim who’s identified in public with being a Muslim American writer, even though I’m not Muslim. You’re an Isma’ili Muslim, with a very rich perspective on the tradition because of a certain kind of position within the larger community. I think we see some of these issues around free speech very clearly because of those contradictions.
I want to speak a little bit about the attack on Salman [Rushdie]. I grew up in a community in Milwaukee, a devout, very vibrant community. When The Satanic Verses came out in 1988, people were angry and deeply offended: Salman had trafficked in representations of the Prophet that had been used for hundreds of years to denigrate Muslims in the West. And the offense was, by all definitions of today’s categories, a form of hate speech. People were angry. They wanted to suppress the book, because the Western audience didn’t understand these nuances and it was elevated to the condition of an act of defiance and heroism.
I read the book because I was intrigued and confused by how other people were responding to it. And I was already at that point in my development where my childhood faith was beginning to founder on the grounds of my intellectual growth. And what happened to me in reading the book was extraordinary. It totally changed my life. And the transgression that Salman was engaged in, in The Satanic Verses, awakened something in me. It would not have done so if it had been respectful of the tradition: it was trying to break through centuries of ossification. And it did so, at least in me.
When Salman was attacked three decades later, in August , people I know were like, He got what he deserved. Good people, who had legitimate grievances about this speech. Then I finally got it: the claims of the harms of speech do not have equal standing as the freedom to speak. They are incommensurate. The transgression and the offense that it causes can have a profound progressive outcome. In fact, change happens through the breaking of dogmas, which are experienced as a fence. And so, again, I come back to this idea that issues around still culturally marginal Islamic identity or Muslim identity and representation actually give us a very good perspective on issues that are affecting us all.
Patel: Right. One thing that strikes me about the young woman who complained about the image of the Prophet Muhammad at Hamline was that she says, In the 23 years of my life, I have never seen an image of the Prophet Muhammad. I look at that and I think to myself, well, what college is supposed to do is to introduce you to dimensions of your tradition that you did not learn about at home.
Akhtar: I mean, that’s not really what college does anymore.
Patel: That’s what the humanities are supposed to do.
Akhtar: I think that sort of challenging the student in the classroom has become less central to the educational process. You take out $70,000 in debt, you’re lured by images of facilities and endless talk of approbation and the future and feeling great—and, you know, the faculty is really prestigious. You’re brought in and you’re turned into a customer. And you know what? Gimme what you told me I was paying for.
Patel: I’m not interested in unmooring for the sake of unmooring, but one of the reasons I would like to think you go to college is to learn things you have to struggle with, which is why free speech is essential for the flowering of diversity. One of the things that confuses me about our current era is that the term “free speech” codes as a way of suppressing certain populations. I’m like, wait a second, how do you have multiple expressions unless people are free to express themselves? If you don’t have free speech, then you default to a dogma and a dogma—
Akhtar: —devours diversity. [Laughs.]
Let’s talk about the politics of the victim. I have two things that I want to talk about. One is institutional. You’re a truly gifted guy, and I think you could be a major politician if you wanted to be, because you’re deeply inspiring at your best—when you’re not relying on sound bites. [Laughs.] I want to ask you, as somebody building this extraordinary institution, Interfaith America, to tell us a little bit about that remarkable idea. But I also want you to tell me about your frustrations with the DEI process.
Patel: By the way, I love diversity. I am just concerned that the current mechanism we have for advancing diversity in lots of institutions is actually not helping the process of diversity.
Akhtar: You don’t have a problem with DEI, you have a problem with how DEI is done?
Patel: Right. I run a diversity organization called Interfaith America. It’s the largest interfaith organization in the United States. The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in human history. So how we nurture religious diversity really matters.
Religious identity is probably the most important identity in American law, from the Constitution to the Civil Rights Act to the Religious Freedom Act of 1993. It is the most important identity in our civil society. If you think about the founding identity of the YMCA, or Habitat for Humanity, or Catholic Charities, or the Salvation Army, or a significant number of our higher ed institutions and a significant number of our hospitals, it’s a religious identity. The point is, religion is an enormously important dimension of identity, so engaging it in a positive and proactive way really matters. That’s what we do at my organization, so I have a strong stake in diversity work that’s well done. I am concerned about the mechanism as it currently is, but hopeful about what it might be in the future.
So here is a quick story about my son. My son has a diversity fellowship through the Chicago public schools. A couple years ago, he comes home to me one day and he says, “Dad, how come only the straight white Christian boys get to call themselves privileged?” It put a finger on what deeply disturbs me about the current DEI framing. I’m an immigrant from India. All we talk about in our home is how privileged our kids are—not in a scolding way, but in an elevating way: You are so privileged for being Muslim. We have God’s final prophet. We have God’s last revelation. You are so privileged for being an Isma’ili. You have God’s true guide on earth. You are so privileged for having an Indian heritage. It is a nation and a civil civilization of the most beautiful fashion, of the most flavorful food, of the most interesting literature. There’s nothing in here about socioeconomic class, although we’re privileged that way as well. We’re constantly talking about the privileges of our culture and our religion, and we send him to a diversity fellowship, and he’s put in the circle, literally and physically, of the “marginalized” kids. And people are asking questions like, Tell me how you’ve been victimized by Islamophobia. And I’m like, the definition of a Muslim isn’t somebody who’s been a victim of Islamophobia, it’s someone who is inspired by Islam
What deeply concerns me is the cultural priming for kids like my son. If you are emotionally invested in getting somebody to tell you how much of a victim they are, they start to see themselves that way, and we know how dangerous that is to human psychology. If you don’t have a sense of esteem, if you don’t have a sense of positive identity, you’re deeply lost. If your parents are constantly telling you how beautiful your identity is, and your teachers, who’ve gone through a DEI training, are constantly telling you how oppressed you are, I think they’re engaged in malpractice, perhaps even entrapment.
Akhtar: I hear you. You know, I’m listening to you as a leader of an institution—and I’m also listening as an artist. And I think to myself, that’s not an uninteresting dramatic circumstance, I wouldn’t mind writing about that. I am noticing the dramatist point of view here because I made this decision, when I was much younger, that I was going to ply my trade in the market, that I wasn’t going to take an academic sinecure, and I was going to force myself to make a living by my pen, because I knew that was going to make me a better writer, it was going force me to be in contact with the audience at a time when, if I was not, I wouldn’t be as sharp.
Especially working in television over the last three years, one of the messages I’m getting from the audience is that there is a paradigm shift underway, and the central protagonist of social experience is increasingly the victim, not the hero. It’s an interesting dramatic conundrum because from a story point of view, everything that’s interesting about the victim happened in the past. And the hero is defined by what is coming in the future. I think innate audience engagement is for an unknown that is unfolding now towards an unknown future as opposed to an unknown now that is unfolding towards a known past. It’s a dilemma. I don’t have the same moral feelings about this as you, but I do have qualms because I’m not sure I’m that interested in that form of storytelling.
Patel: For the entirety of our friendship, I’ve been poking around for moral feelings. I’m curious if you have moral feelings about your fellow artists trying to tell you what you can and can’t write. And I think one of the things that has shocked me over the last five or eight years is the ferocity of artists telling other artists, You can’t write this.
Akhtar: You asked me this question a couple weeks ago and I was like, wow, I’ve never thought about that. It’s true, it’s dog eat dog. Everybody’s trying to tear everybody else down, but there’s a moralizing self-promoting posture around a lot of it, which is about celebrating marginalized identities. But I wonder sometimes whether it doesn’t have to do with precarity, with scarcity, and a feeling that you can’t exist: that the identitarianism has really taken over as the primary binding glue socially and being fellow artists trying to figure out what it is we want to write about or can write about is no longer a category that’s meaningful.
I don’t want people to tell me what to write or what I can’t write. I don’t want to be told what is right or wrong. The right moral position is of no interest to me as a dramatist. It gives me no advantage, not to write better dialogue or to frame better scenes. I have no idea whether Shakespeare was a Catholic or a Protestant. I don’t know if he was a royalist or if he hated kings—I don’t know because he’s written from every point of view. As an artist, I am increasingly of the mind that having a politics, in fact, gets in the way of seeing reality for what it is, because it divides it into a part that I should be aligned with and a part that I shouldn’t be aligned with. And it impedes my ability to see and to show, which is what my job is as a dramatist.
I’ve always been uncomfortable in this role as president of PEN because I’m an artist. What—am I supposed to stand for something? What do you mean? I don’t want to stand for anything. I’m about telling great stories. I’m about betraying my characters. I’m about betraying my family. If anybody knows my work, that’s all I do. [Laughs.] I have no principles. That’s what people come to me for. That’s what I live and breathe for.
The conundrum of being the head of an institution has been uncomfortable for me. It’s forced me to grapple with free expression in a way that I probably would not have otherwise. And really, fundamentally, to understand the bedrock nature of what “free expression” really does mean—and that I actually do stand for that. I do believe that freedom to imagine, to think, to write, to speak, to tell, to persuade, to know—this is a freedom that is, and should be, absolutely sacrosanct.
Patel: Look, I think that this is why you’re the president of PEN. And why I’m grateful for it.
Akhtar: It took me a while to get here.
Patel: You know, artist dogs might eat artist dogs, but they don’t poison the air so every dog dies, right?
Akhtar: Sorry, I don’t really know what that meant either. [Laughs.]
Patel: Free expression is oxygen, right? You need that to breathe so you can go after another dog in the field. But you can’t poison the atmosphere so that everything is extinct. If we have entered a period in which a novelist says to another novelist, You can’t write about people outside of your identity category, are you then advertising that your novel only has people from your identity category? Are the only people I can write about if I’m a novelist, middle-aged, Midwestern, Isma’ili Muslim men with thinning hair, and there’s nobody else in my novel?
Akhtar: The rise of auto-fiction is very much connected to that.
Patel: It’s not just that at some point you’re going to get caught out—you have to populate your novel with people who you are imagining your way into. Otherwise, it’s not a novel. You can’t even get a haiku out of only writing about your identity.
I thought that the current politics around DEI was really useful as a critique. The way I define a critique is: What are you leaving out? Are there ways of thinking about race and identity that you’re leaving out? This turns out to be very useful as a critique, because very often identity issues are left out. As a paradigm, it’s less useful. What’s a paradigm? It is a worldview that seeks to explain most of the data points in the world. Clearly not everything in the world can be explained by theories of marginalization. And as a regime, it’s terrible. A regime has punitive capacities. If you can fire professors, if you can stop novels from being published, now you’re a regime. We’ve gotten to the point where the current ethos is not a critique, where again it is useful. It is not a paradigm, in which it has problems because it doesn’t explain everything. It is a regime, and it punishes people. And that is not good.
Akhtar: That landed. I got that. Thank you. [Laughs.] Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about Bob Dylan.
Patel: For me, a very salient example of dogma destroying not just diversity, but art, is the example of Dylan in the early sixties, Bob Dylan emerges as the hero of a particular folk generation: he’s the second coming of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he’s doing songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he’s got an album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he plays at the March on Washington, et cetera. And he’s heralded as the articulator of a particular white liberal politics. And then Dylan starts listening to the Beatles and the Byrds, and he starts thinking imagining new approaches to music. And famously at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he plugs in, and he plays “Maggie’s Farm” with an electric guitar and he gets booed offstage. Pete Seeger says, “I wish I could have cut the cord.”
Patel: Because the particular politics of that era, the particular dogma of that scene, was that pure acoustic music was necessary for ending nuclear war. And so Dylan, as somebody in England called him, became Judas by plugging in. And also by plugging in, Dylan changes the course of American music, and he creates albums like Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. Albums that are thought of as masterpieces in American music now. And if he had been devoured by the dogma of the time, if he didn’t have the courage and the strength to break out of that dogma cage, that new dimension of artistic expression wouldn’t have been created, at least not by him.
Akhtar: What interests me most about that story is: What does it take to be the person who can stand up to the dogma of the time? What is it to be the person who will write the things that people are telling me I can’t write? What is it to be the person who does not gain some sort of feeling of security and belonging from repeating ad nauseam, however beautifully, the platitudes that we don’t see as platitudes?
Patel: Dylan does an entire tour in England, where for the entire second half of each show he is booed from beginning to end. He does this for months, and he just barrels through his electric songs. There’s a great line by Charles Simic: the artist is that kid with his back to the crowd who thinks he’s in paradise, and that’s who Dylan is on this tour. He knows he is doing something important, and he just keeps on doing it.
Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, novelist, and President of PEN America.
Eboo Patel is Founder and President of Interfaith America.