05/24/2010 06:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Everybody Draw Muhammad Day': The New Campus Culture Wars

I was an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, the heyday of identity politics. We read copious amounts of Cornel West and bell hooks, demanded multicultural centers and gender studies departments, applauded Ellen's coming out, and protested demeaning mascots like Chief Illiniwek. "Race-class-gender-ethnicity-sexuality" was repeated so often that it almost became a single word.

No doubt parts of the identity politics movement went off the cliff (down with Western Civ!). And there was pushback, of course (only the West has civilization!). But over all, university administrations recognized an important opportunity and charted a sensible middle course.

In a society with too much racism and sexism, in a globalized world with too much ignorance and misunderstanding, campuses could be alternate universes -- models where equity, harmony, and appreciative knowledge of other cultures were the norm, launching pads for leaders who absorbed that larger vision and learned the skill set to improve the broader society when they graduated.

So new centers were started, new professors hired, new course requirements added. And most importantly, new norms were set. College leaders at the highest level defined their campuses as models of inclusiveness and open-minded learning. Incidents that were seen as marginalizing a particular group (white students showing up to a party in blackface), or books like The Bell Curve that argued that some races simply had lower aptitude than others, were met with the higher education equivalent of social outrage. Of course, the flags of "free speech" and "academic inquiry" were raised, but the mantle of building an inclusive learning community carried the day.

Muslim students waking up to chalk drawings mocking the Prophet Muhammad on their college quads are probably likely wondering why their identity is not a cherished part of the college ethos of inclusiveness. In case you missed it, "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day," which took place on May 20, was a campaign that hit several campuses.

The only ingredients you need are a handful of students who believe that they are crusaders for free speech, some chalk, and the cover of darkness. The campaign was sparked by Comedy Central's decision to censor an episode of South Park that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a demeaning manner. South Park has a reputation for offending roundly and is, of course, on a cable channel people that pay for and opt in to. A college quad is a public place where there is an implicit promise by the university that students of all backgrounds will feel safe and accepted.

When there is a racially demeaning event on a college campus -- like the Compton Cookout at the University of California at San Diego -- higher education responds like it's a five-alarm fire. Administrators organize town hall meetings to discuss the threats to inclusiveness. Presidents send out e-mails to the whole campus calling for racial sensitivity. Faculty committees are formed to submit recommendations on how to make minority students feel welcome. The incident is used, appropriately, as a teachable moment, an opportunity to affirm and expand the university as an inclusive learning environment.

If there was any alarm raised by higher education in response to the chalking Muhammad incidents, it's been hard to hear (with the important exception of chaplaincies on certain campuses that have adapted to engage religious diversity). For the most part, the discussion has been in the frame of free speech vs. fundamentalist Islam. But isn't this incident also a teachable moment about identity? Shouldn't universities be boldly advancing the narrative of actions that build an inclusive campus vs. actions that marginalize a community?

While this particular incident may be about the sensitivities of Muslim students, there is a much larger issue at play here. What the race-class-gender-ethnicity-sexuality movement of the 1990s missed was religion. But faith can't be swept under the rug any longer. Religion is the new fault line in the culture wars. From the The Passion of the Christ to the passions raised by the Middle East, from the new aggressive atheism to the religious revival among evangelicals and Muslims, conflicts in the culture are quickly becoming conflicts on the quad.

Colleges ought to view this as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than a headache to be ignored. Just as campuses became models of multiculturalism, so too can they become models of interfaith cooperation. After all, campuses gather students from different religious backgrounds (including no religion at all), they view themselves as a vanguard sector that models positive behavior for the broader culture, and they already have an ethos of pluralism.

An awful lot is at stake here, especially if campuses want to maintain their reputation as inclusive learning environments. Just about the only agreement among different religious student groups right now is that the only identity you can openly insult on a campus without inviting social outrage is religion.

And as far as being the nation's flagship learning environments, higher education ought to consider this: Probably the most salient thing many U.S. college students know about the central figure in the world's second largest religion -- among the most influential people in history -- is that Comedy Central won't let him be portrayed on South Park.

(This piece originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed)