The Council on American-Islamic Relations isn’t shy about leveling accusations of Islamophobia, but not even CAIR believes that a Minnesota professor who showed medieval artwork of Muhammad crossed the line.
The Muslim-rights group came to the defense Friday of former Hamline University adjunct professor Erika Lopez Prater, overriding its Minnesota chapter after it condemned as Islamophobic the display of two historic images of the Muslim prophet during an Oct. 6 online art class.
“Although we strongly discourage showing visual depictions of the Prophet, we recognize that professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense,” the national organization said in a statement. “Based on what we know up to this point, we see no evidence that Professor Erika López Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets our definition of Islamophobia.”
The statement came after the organization’s Minnesota chapter entered the fray with a press conference to support Hamline, a small university in St. Paul that suffered a national uproar for not renewing Ms. Lopez Prater‘s contract at the end of the fall term.
“It is important to remember that academic freedom is not absolute,” said CAIR-Minnesota executive director Jaylani Hussein at the Wednesday press briefing, as shown on Fox9 Minneapolis. “And universities have the right to restrict speech that promotes hate or discrimination.”
Hamline blasted the art lecture as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” saying respect for Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom” after a student who attended the class complained.
Ms. Lopez Prater warned students ahead of time about the images both in the course syllabus and then again before showing them during the online lecture. Still, Hamline senior Aram Wedatalla said she was “extremely hurt and disappointed.”
“I was shocked to find that I was in a class with a professor who gave me trigger warnings before proceeding to disrespect my religion and me,” Ms. Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, said at the CAIR-Minnesota press conference.
While many Muslims consider visual depictions of the Prophet sacrilegious, the view is not universal. Muslim artists in some regions created “reverential paintings of the Prophet,” and some Muslims “use certain images as part of their religious practices,” said CAIR.
“What we find un-Islamic is not necessarily Islamophobic, and we must be careful to distinguish between those two concepts,” said the national group. “Academics should not be condemned as bigots without evidence or lose their positions without justification.”
In rare move, CAIR issues press release with official national position on Hamline situation — breaking with the Minnesota chapter’s position https://t.co/5jtuYTYwfx— Becky Zosia Dernbach (@bzosiad) January 13, 2023
The Muslim Public Affairs Council also defended Ms. Lopez Prater, saying that the 14th-century painting was “not Islamophobic” and in fact was commissioned by a Muslim king to honor the Prophet by depicting him receiving a revelation from the archangel Gabriel.
“Given the ubiquity of Islamophobic depictions of the Prophet Muḥammad, it hardly makes sense to target an art professor trying to combat narrow understandings of Islam,” said the council in a statement. “There is an unmistakable irony in the situation, which should be appreciated.”
Hamline President Fayneese Miller issued a statement Wednesday defending the university’s position and disputing media reports saying that Ms. Lopez Prater was fired or dismissed.
“The adjunct taught the class to the end of the term, when she, like all other faculty, completed the term requirements, and posted her grades,” Ms. Miller said in a statement. “The decision not to offer her another class was made at the unit level and in no way reflects on her ability to adequately teach the class.”
She said that administrators, staff and a Hamline student “now receive daily threats of violence,” and she took issue with those accusing the university of infringing upon academic freedom.
“Hamline is a liberal arts institution, the oldest in Minnesota, the first to admit women, and now led by a woman of color,” said Ms. Miller. “To deny the precepts upon which academic freedom is based would be to undermine our foundational principles. Prioritizing the well-being of our students does not in any way negate or minimize the rights and privileges assured by academic freedom.”
Free-speech groups have rallied behind Ms. Lopez Prater. A Change.org petition posted by University of Michigan professor of Islamic art Christiane Gruber calling for Hamline to reinstate the professor had reached Friday nearly 15,000 signatures.
In its statement, CAIR said that “we normally do not comment on local issues that arise in states with an existing CAIR chapter.”
“However, we must sometimes speak up to clarify where our entire organization stands on local issues with national implications. This is one of those times,” said the national group.
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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