New report attacks Hamline University’s handling of Islamic art controversy
A national organization promoting academic freedom released a new report on Monday attacking Hamline University’s response after an art history professor showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class.
The American Association of University Teachers accused the private St. Paul University of engaging in “what amounted to a de facto smear campaign against the professor.” [Erika] López Prater which also represented an attack on the fundamental principles of academic freedom.”
The association is one of many groups that have commented on last fall’s episode that placed Hamline University at the center of a high-profile debate over academic freedom, religious tolerance and Islamophobia. López Prater’s contract was not renewed for the spring semester.
The university did not immediately comment on the report and a lawyer for López Prater could not immediately be reached.
López Prater was working as an adjunct teacher at the university when she showed students two century-old works of art depicting the Prophet Muhammad. One showed the prophet – including his face – as he received a revelation from the angel Gabriel that would later form the basis of the Quran. The second showed a similar moment, but with the prophet’s face veiled and his image surrounded by a halo.
Scholars and religious leaders have sometimes disagreed on whether Islam allows images of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims maintain that images are strictly prohibited to avoid idolatry, while others have images of the prophet in their homes.
López Prater said she provided a disclaimer in the course syllabus and spent “at least a few minutes” preparing students for the footage. One of his students, Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Students Association, said he heard the professor give a “trigger warning”, wondered what it was for “and then I looked and c was the prophet”. Wedatalla contacted university administrators.
The university decided not to renew López Prater’s contract. In an email from campus, an administrator called his actions “undeniably reckless, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” a choice of words that the university’s president and chairman of the board have since called “flawed.” .
The 19-page report by the American Association of University Teachers was based on information gathered during a two-day visit to campus, interviews with five administrators and others on campus, and statements letters issued by López Prater’s lawyer.
The association wrote that López Prater’s decision to show the works was justifiable, appropriate, and “protected by academic freedom.”
“The committee can only speculate on the reason for the decision not to reappoint Professor López Prater,” the report said. “But circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that it was directly and solely a consequence of what happened at the October 6 class reunion.”
A footnote in the report says Hamline University told the association it “disputed” the group’s findings, saying they were speculative and contradictory.
The association’s report says it is also concerned “about the climate of academic freedom at Hamline” due to incidents with other staff members, including one who felt that his attempts to publicly defend López Prater had been suffocated.
López Prater sued the university for religious discrimination, defamation and the like. A federal judge heard arguments on some motions last week and is weighing whether to dismiss the case, allow it to proceed, or send it back to state court.
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