A U.S. university who let go of a lecturer who showed depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has received death threats, according to its president.
Hamline University has been heavily criticised for its decision by the mainstream media, academics and even some American Muslims. They say the action was a gross violation of academic freedom and that the lecturer had no Islamophobic intent.
Commenting on the issue for the first time since the controversy broke, Hamline University President Fayneese Miller said: “Fueled by commentary not well-informed on the particulars of this situation, we now find ourselves at the heart of a purported stand-off between academic freedom and equity. It has escalated to the point where I, members of my executive staff, other campus staff and, most sadly, one of our students now receive daily threats of violence.”
The controversy erupted last year when the Minnesota university let go of an art history lecturer, Erika Lopez Prater, who upset Muslim students by showing images of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in an online class.
The professor shared two depictions of the Prophet (pbuh) – a 14th century depiction and a 16th century depiction with a veil and halo.
The 14th century depiction was of the Prophet (pbuh) receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel (as), created by Rashīd al-Dīn, a Persian Muslim scholar and historian.
The other was created by Mustafa ibn Vali in the 16th century as part of an illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi (the Life of the Prophet), an earlier, Ottomon Turkish epic work on the life of Muhammad (pbuh).
The vast majority of Muslim scholars prohibit figural representations of the Prophet (pbuh).
In her statement, President Fayneese Miller clarified that the professor had not been fired as widely reported by the media. Rather, she didn’t have her contract renewed.
She said: “To suggest that the university does not respect academic freedom is absurd on its face. Hamline is a liberal arts institution, the oldest in Minnesota, the first to admit women, and now led by a woman of color. 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. But the concepts do intersect. Faculty have the right to teach and research subjects of importance to them, and to publish their work under the purview of their peers.
“At the same time, academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior… academic freedom, like so many ideological principles, can be manipulated, misunderstood, and misrepresented… academic freedom can become a weapon to be used against vulnerable populations. Why? Because on the other end of a professor claiming academic freedom may be a student — a student who lacks tenure, who must rely on that professor for a grade and who may be emotionally, intellectually, or professionally harmed by the professor’s exercise of the power they hold.
“Also, the American Federation of Teachers correctly notes that ‘academic freedom and its attendant rights do not mean that ‘anything goes.’ It notes that ‘faculty must act professionally in their scholarly research, their teaching, and their interactions with students and… ensure this through policies and procedures that safeguard both students and the academic integrity of the institutions and disciplines.’
“I ask those who presume to judge us the following questions: First, does your defense of academic freedom infringe upon the rights of students in violation of the very principles you defend? Second, does the claim that academic freedom is sacrosanct, and owes no debt to the traditions, beliefs, and views of students, comprise a privileged reaction? That is why Hamline’s Civility Statement, which guards our campus interactions, notes that any student, regardless of race, ethnic background, religion or belief, deserves equal protection from the institution.
“It is far easier to criticize, from the security of our computer screens, than it is to have to make the hard decisions that serve the interests of the entire campus community. What disappoints me the most is that little has been said regarding the needs and concerns of our students that all members of our community hold in trust. I hope this changes.”
Hamline University Board of Trustees added: “Recent events have required us to look deeply into our values. We are a beautifully diverse community committed to educating our students and ourselves, and sometimes that means we need to make space for hard conversations and serious self-reflection. This is one of those times. We are listening and we are learning.
“The Hamline University Board of Trustees is actively involved in reviewing the University’s policies and responses to recent student concerns and subsequent faculty concerns about academic freedom. Upholding academic freedom and fostering an inclusive, respectful learning environment for our students are both required to fulfill our Mission. We will move forward together and we will be stronger for it.”
Meanwhile, in a belated response to the incident, America’s largest Muslim organisation, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said it discouraged the display of images of the Prophet (pbuh) while also noting that the academic study of ancient paintings depicting him does not, by itself, constitute Islamophobia.
CAIR added that it had seen “no evidence” that former Hamline University professor Erika Lopez Prater had bigoted intent or engaged in Islamophobic conduct in the classroom.
CAIR said: “We never hesitate to call out Islamophobia, but we never use the word Islamophobia lightly. It is not a catch-all term for anything that we find insensitive, offensive or immoral. To determine what constitutes an act of anti-Muslim bigotry or discrimination, we always consider intent, actions and circumstances…
“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. 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 also expressed support for Muslim students at Hamline University and encouraged schools to consider the perspective of students who argue that displaying depictions of the Prophet (pbuh) in the classroom is harmful and also unnecessary, given they represent a small and late-stage part of the vast Muslim art history.
CAIR encouraged school officials, academics, students and others involved in the situation at the local and national level to re-examine the controversy with open minds, and pledged to do what it can to help resolve the conflict.
Islamic artwork and iconography dating back to early Muslim history centre largely around calligraphy and geometric designs because of scholarly opinion that limited, discouraged or outright forbade the drawing of living beings, especially prophets and other figures whose images might be subjected to idolatry. No images of the Prophet (pbuh) were drawn during or anywhere near his lifetime.
The vast majority of Muslims therefore consider visual depictions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) sacrilegious and offensive.