May 22, 2018

Aurora Public Library Removes Controversial Poem from Display

Aurora Public Library’s Santori Library
Photo courtesy Aurora Public Library

The Aurora Public Library (APL), IL, took down a controversial poem displayed at its Santori Public Library that appeared to express anti-Muslim sentiment and violence against Muslim women. Titled “Hijab Means Jihad,” the poem began, “Every kid should be like my kid and snatch a hijab” and was superimposed over an image of the Confederate flag. The poem went on to say, “Hijab to me means jihad / So keep that shit out of / The country I love,” and described how the “kid” in question “whooped and danced around / Like an Indian with a scalp.”

The poem’s author, George Miller, professor and chair of the philosophy department at Lewis University, Romeoville, IL, stated that it was written as satire and not intended to be anti-Muslim.

The exhibit, “Placeholders: Photo-Poems,” consisted of about 50 poems superimposed on photographs, all created by Miller. It was installed in the library’s first-floor atrium and slated to be a stop on the April 21 Fox River Arts Ramble—a collection of art and cultural exhibits located in public spaces throughout Aurora and neighboring communities. However, a number of people complained, both in person and on social media. Patrons took to Facebook and Twitter to denounce the library’s decision to display the poem, claiming that it encouraged violence against women and Muslims. Many demanded that it be taken down, and the library did so on Saturday evening, April 21.

[The piece can be viewed at the bottom of this article, for those who wish to scroll down and read it.]

SATIRE OR HATE SPEECH?

Miller had contacted the library in 2017 after attending a First Friday event there. (Businesses in downtown Aurora are open to the public for various arts-related activities on the first Friday of each month). He suggested a display of his poetry and photographs, and the collection passed the library’s approval process—which at the time consisted of a single staff member. Board president John Savage told the Chicago Tribune that even after the exhibit was mounted in the library’s atrium, “neither he nor other library officials had focused on the content.”

The selection of poems was installed on April 2, but criticisms didn’t begin to appear until April 20, the day before the Fox River Arts Ramble. When they did, however, many referred to the poem as “hate speech,” calling it Islamophobic and saying that it promoted violence against women who wear hijabs or other head covering.

APL’s first response to the public’s remarks, posted on its Facebook page on Friday, April 20, was, “Some have commented on the satirical nature of the poem…. Others view it as ‘hate speech.’ We are pleased that people are talking.”

The volume of angry comments grew, however. One Facebook poster wrote, “That poem on the Confederate flag doesn’t look or feel like satire. It looks and reads just like a zillion racist graphics posted with heartfelt agreement that I’ve blocked right here on Facebook. Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable; this does the reverse.”

One Muslim woman commented, “These are the kinds of things that put me in danger. Real danger, every time I leave the house. There is ALWAYS a risk that someone is going to pull off my scarf and hurt me. The library, of all places, shouldn’t present the harm of headcovering women as worthy of celebration.”

The Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, sent a letter to APL requesting that the poem be taken down and called on library leadership to investigate how the poem was included in the first place.

A TAKEDOWN, AN APOLOGY

Library administration decided to remove the offending poem on April 21. Miller was contacted and chose to remove the rest of his display that evening as well.

That night APL posted a statement on Facebook that read, in part, “We want everyone to feel safe and welcome at Aurora Public Library, and we will remove the panel before we open for business tomorrow. Thank you for sharing your concerns with us and for the thoughtful discussion that has taken place.”

Commenters, still unhappy with the library’s stance, noted that the statement had not contained an apology. Director Daisy Porter-Reynolds responded, writing, “I offer my heartfelt apology to our community, but I know that is not enough to heal the pain this has caused. I want all of our customers to feel safe and welcome at the library, and I am taking measures to make certain this never happens again.”

In a second statement, Savage wrote that the library would conduct an internal review to discover how the poem was allowed to be displayed.

A letter from Lewis University president David J. Livingston on the university’s website described Miller as “a person who has fought for social justice his entire career.” The letter went on to state, “I am grateful to the community members who shared an open and respectful dialogue with us. We have heard expressions of pain, disappointment, disbelief, anger, and embarrassment. Their input has been instructive to our overall understanding and perspective.” A university community forum to continue the discussion was scheduled for Friday, April 27.

A poster on Facebook wrote, “Taking down this piece after your exhibit was already over doesn’t solve anything. The real discussion begins now on why this piece was even allowed up. So if you are true to your word about the importance of a discussion—let’s have a discussion with community leaders like myself and many others who have posted here and the board and your leaders at the Aurora Public Library.”

SETTING A PRECEDENT

Although many were satisfied with the library’s decision, others felt that its quick takedown sent a message antithetical to library values.

“It speaks well of the Aurora community that they take inclusiveness so seriously,” James LaRue, director of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, told LJ, “but I believe the process they followed sets a bad precedent. Art, and especially satirical art, is constitutionally protected speech. Being offended by it doesn’t justify its summary removal…. Too, the consideration should be a thoughtful review, considering the selection process and the library mission. When we respond too quickly to those who are offended, we give them the power to silence others.”

Amy Roth, former communications manager at APL, resigned her position after Savage’s statement was posted on social media and the library’s website. In addition to not showing support for potentially differing opinions of library staff, the message was “going out on my email with my name on it,” Roth told the Aurora Beacon-News. “I did not want to be associated with it…and I knew the consequences of that, I told them I needed to resign.”

However, the library’s Exhibit/Display Policy explicitly prohibits “Material that threatens violence or intimidation of an individual or group,” Porter-Reynolds pointed out.

“There is obviously a balance to be drawn between freedom of speech and what can be displayed at the library,” she told LJ. “Our policy also says that we reserve the right to remove any display that interferes with library business or service, which this certainly has. My main goal as the director is for everyone to feel safe and welcome at the library and taking down the sign was an effort in that direction.”

CAIR-Chicago’s Rehab urged the library to consult with and include the voices of any groups of people under discussion, such as Muslims, Native Americans, or blacks. “If you wish to talk about someone or even for someone, first talk to them,” he said in a statement. “We are all here and part of every community and willing to sit at any table.”

REBUILDING TRUST

Approval for exhibits will now be handled by a team that includes Porter-Reynolds, at least one board member, and a several frontline staffers to be decided.

The exhibit marking the launch of the season’s First Friday series, which went up on May 4, was scheduled before the controversy: an exhibit of clothing, photographs, and personal housewares from community activist Marie Wilkinson, a local civil rights leader and educator who founded food pantries and museums and was known as “the Mother of Aurora.”

Going forward, CAIR-Chicago has pledged to work with the library to “initiate healing, bring understanding, and rebuild trust.” The organization will conduct inclusion and diversity training for APL’s 160 staff members; the first session, for managers and interested board members, is scheduled for May 7. The library also plans to work with local faith leaders on more inclusive programming.

“The local Muslim community has been extremely gracious,” said Porter-Reynolds. “They have really appreciated our taking [the poem] down and our apologies, and they’re working closely with us…. I believe they understand that there was no bad intention.” She added, “There are positives to come out of this.”

 

 


 

 

“Hijab Means Jihad” by George Miller

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. I agree this shouldn’t be posted, but I wonder if there were any others that were anti-American or anti-white. If so, did they get removed as well?

    • The article states, “Library administration decided to remove the offending poem on April 21. Miller was contacted and chose to remove the rest of his display that evening as well.”

    • anonymous coward says:

      IT WAS SATIRE!

  2. Roger Entwhistle says:

    “CAIR-Chicago’s Rehab urged the library to consult with and include the voices of any groups of people under discussion, such as Muslims, Native Americans, or blacks. “If you wish to talk about someone or even for someone, first talk to them,” he said in a statement. “We are all here and part of every community and willing to sit at any table.”

    Sounds like the author of this thinks that a single Muslim, Black or Native American speaks for all of those respective groups. Just ask one and you will get a spokesperson for all. If one black says it is ok, then it must be ok for all.

    That is as bigoted as any assumption by Archie Bunker.

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