National, local Muslim groups differ on Hamline University response to art dispute

Two national Muslim organizations urged Hamlin University this week to reconsider its decision to fire an art teacher who displayed images of the Prophet Muhammad, while a state Muslim group reiterated its belief that the teacher’s actions were Islamophobic. .

In a statement Friday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ national office said it strongly encourages people to display images of the Prophet, but distinguishes between professors who display them in an academic setting and those who do not. that attack or mock their religion.

“What we see as un-Islamic is not necessarily Islamophobic, and we must consider the difference between these two concepts,” the group said. “Academics should not be condemned as adults without evidence or lose their position without justification.”

The group’s statement — which it said reflects “CAIR’s only official position” — was in direct contrast to comments made earlier this week by leaders of the group’s Minnesota chapter, which reiterated its support for Hamlin University administrators who Did not choose to renew the teacher. contract

Hamlin University administrators find themselves under national scrutiny as groups debate how the school should respond when concerns about academic freedom and religious tolerance collide. Some groups said the university should act to support an increasingly diverse student body, while others said it inappropriately stoked religious differences.

Hamlin’s board of trustees said Friday it is reviewing the university’s policies, as well as concerns raised by students and staff.

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“Preserving academic freedom and creating an inclusive, respectful learning environment for our students are both essential to fulfilling our mission,” the board said in a statement. “We will move forward together and we will be stronger for it.”

Scholars and religious leaders sometimes disagree about whether Islam permits images of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims argue that images are strictly forbidden to prevent idolatry of anyone other than God. Others have portraits of the Prophet in their homes.

In a world art class this fall, adjunct teacher Erica Lopez Prater showed students a two-century-old artwork depicting the Prophet receiving the revelation from the angel Gabriel that would later form the basis of the Koran. She said she spent “at least a few minutes” preparing the students for the photos.

One of her students, Aram Vadatla, president of the Hamlin Muslim Student Association, saw the warning as evidence that the teacher should not have displayed the artwork. She contacted the university’s administrators, who later described the practice as “undoubtedly inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” — a trait López Prater found deeply concerning.

Lopez Prater was talking to department heads about teaching another class in the spring semester; The university did not renew her contract.

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The university’s response has drawn a backlash from some professors who fear it will have a ripple effect on higher education.

“It is entirely within the student’s right to dispute the acceptability of these images from a religious perspective, or to argue that such images are un-Islamic.” said Todd Green, an associate professor of religion at Luther College who teaches about Islamophobia. “At the same time, it is not the job of the professor to pass judgment on matters of Islamic orthodoxy. Debates about what is and is not the correct understanding of Islam—or, in this case, Islamic art—are up to Muslim communities alone. It’s about.”

Some national groups promoting academic freedom and Hamlin’s former president raised concerns about the university’s handling of the situation, as did the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which urged Hamlin to ” Revoke the decision and take remedial measures to improve the situation.”

In a letter to the editor, former university president Linda Hanson said: “Whether through a miscalculation of the consequences of the decision or a hasty process that failed to recognize what Islamophobia is, it is time for the university to reinstate the professor. place and use this event as an opportunity for discussion, student learning and support for academic freedom in Hamlin classrooms.”

In a statement earlier this week, University President Phineas Miller said the decision not to renew Lopez Prater’s contract was made “at the unit level,” and she continued to defend it.

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“It’s much easier to criticize the security of our computer screens than to make tough decisions that should serve the interests of the entire campus community,” she said.

She added: “To do all you can to improve means in part to reduce harm. This is what has informed our decisions so far and will continue to inform them in the future. “

At a news conference earlier this week, Vedatala and leaders of CAIR’s Minnesota chapter reiterated their support for Miller and other administrators, saying they have taken steps to ensure students are safe and respected. feels

“Islamophobia can manifest in many different ways,” said Jilani Hussain, executive director of CAIR-MN, who said that sometimes the less violent or less visible forms are the hardest to combat.

At the news conference, Vidtala said he supports freedom of speech — but not when it’s disrespectful. The 23-year-old cried as she told him how she had never seen a picture of the Prophet Muhammad before this class.

“It hurts and it breaks my heart to stand here and ask people to understand me, what I feel,” she said.

Staff writer Erica Pearson contributed to this report.

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