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, RomeoviDe, IL, stated that it was written as satire and not intended to be anti-Muslim.
Named "Placeholders: Photo-Poems," the exhibit 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, after the ramble.
Miller had contacted the library in 2017 after attending an event there. He suggested a display of his poetry and photos, and the collection passed the library's approval process--which at the time consisted of a single staff member.
The selected poems were installed on April 2, but criticisms didn't begin to appear until April 20, the day before the 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. In addition, 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.
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."
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."
Amy Roth, former communications manager at APL, resigned her position after board president John Savage's apology was posted on social media and the library's website. In addition to not showing support for potentially differing opinions among 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."
The library's Exhibit/Display Policy explicitly prohibits "Material that threatens violence or intimidation of an individual or group," Director Daisy Porter-Reynolds pointed out.
Approval for exhibits will now be handled by a team that includes Porter-Reynolds, at least one board member, and several frontline staffers to be decided.
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; the first session, for managers and interested board members, was scheduled for May 7. The library also plans to work with local faith leaders on more inclusive programming.