A professor at a private college in Minnesota was dismissed from her job after showing students a 14th-century image of the Islamic prophet Muhammad during an art history course.
The instructor, Erika López Prater, had been an adjunct professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. Prater, aware that images of Muhammad are considered offensive by many Muslims, took steps to ensure that her students knew the image (as well of those of other religious figures) would be included. She put the information in a course syllabus and offered to accommodate students who would prefer not to see it. She also included a warning to the class the day the image was used.
Nevertheless, a student complained, and Prater was let go by officials at the school.
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) supported the student and argued that the inclusion of the image was offensive. But CAIR’s national office in Washington, D.C., overruled the local chapter and issued a statement opposing the university’s action.
The national CAIR office called for schools to be sensitive to the needs of Muslim students but added that in this case, the professor was engaging in legitimate academic instruction; there’s no evidence, CAIR noted, that she was motivated by Islamophobia.
“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,” CAIR’s statement read. “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. … Academics should not be condemned as bigots without evidence or lose their positions without justification.”
CAIR urged officials at Hamline to find a way to “respect the sincerely held religious beliefs of students, treat faculty members fairly and protect academic freedom, all at the same time.”
Despite a growing chorus of criticism from free-speech groups and academic-freedom advocates, university officials doubled down and refused to reinstate Prater.
On its “Wall of Separation” blog, Americans United observed, “Prater used the image for academic purposes. She never intended to insult any faith, and she took several steps to ensure that no student would be shown images offensive to them against their will. Allowing religion-based objections to shut down certain forms of instruction is antithetical to the goals of higher education. Prater did nothing wrong. She deserves to get her job back.”
Prater is suing the school for religious discrimination and defamation, asserting that officials called her actions “Islamophobic,” an allegation they later walked back.
In late January, the school’s full-time professors voted 71-12 to request that Hamline President Fayneese S. Miller resign over the matter.
“We, the faculty of Hamline University, stand for both academic freedom and the education of all students,” the statement read. “We affirm both academic freedom and our responsibility to foster an inclusive learning community. Importantly, these values neither contradict nor supersede each other.”