Hamline University || Photo credit: NYT
At the end of the Fall 2022 academic term, Hamline University, a liberal arts college in Minnesota, fired an adjunct professor of art history, Erika López Prater, for showing an image of the prophet Muhammad in a global art history class. As a result, the university administration immediately ended Dr. Prater’s employment as an adjunct faculty member, setting off national controversy surrounding academic freedom, as well as precarity of academic labor and diversity and inclusion in academia.
In compliance with the college’s Civility Code, Prater issued a syllabus warning and shared recurrent reminders that the class would contain images of holy figures, including the prophet Muhammad and the Buddha. She also informed students that those images are optional and they can reach out with any concerns about the course material and ask for alternative accommodations; however, none did, according to a New York Times report. Dr. Prater also repeated her warnings in class that an image of Muhammad would be displayed in a few minutes and anyone who might be offended are free to leave the classroom. Despite the peaceful conduct of the class without any student concern raised, a senior student, who is also the head of the school’s Muslim students association, later complained to administrators. The complaint was supported by the Muslim students who were not enrolled or present in the class. Following the controversial incident, Fayneese Miller, the president of Hamline University, sent an apology letter to the student body last month, stating: “It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident—where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” Miller’s letter exacerbated the controversy by counterposing academic freedom with institutional diversity and inclusion.
The image that led to Dr. Prater’s dismissal is one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, A Compendium of Chronicles. According to the statement of Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a nonprofit organization to promote and strengthen American pluralism by improving policies that impact American Muslims, the image was not Islamophobic. The painting was commissioned by a Muslim patron to honor the Prophet by depicting the first Quranic revelation from the angel Gabriel. MPAC’s statement emphasized that the Islamic culture is not monolithic and internally diverse, and “the professor should be thanked for her role in educating students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike,” on this internal diversity and pluralism of the Islamic tradition in a critically empathetic manner.
As the MESA letter also highlighted in reference to prominent scholars of Islamic art and history, “the presumption that depicting the Prophet has always been prohibited in Islam is historically inaccurate and erases the diversity of Islamic practice, which has in many times and places included the commissioning and viewing of figurative depictions of Muhammad as a form of veneration.” In times of rampant racism, xenophobia, and discrimination, targeting an art professor for showing a centuries old piece of Islamic art in the name of Islamophobia waters down the term and obstructs the recognition of actual acts of bigotry, discrimination, and hate speech.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide deeply condemns the decision of Hamline University that compromises academic freedom and freedom of speech. Prater’s case demonstrates both the obstructions of academic freedom and the precarity of academic labor. Hamline University, like all other higher education institutions, has an obligation to uphold and protect academic freedom both for their students and faculty, with an objective and fair approach to the concerns and sensitivities of all parties. We endorse MPAC and MESA initiatives in support of Dr. Prater’s reinstatement, demanding a fair and full investigation of the incident, taking into account the expertise of the scholars of Islamic art and history, which would help reaffirm the university’s commitment to the values listed in its Civility Code, and foster a better understanding of the diversity of Islam, including various ways of artistic expression, through which Muslims engage with their faith.