CAIR says no evidence Hamline University lesson was Islamophobic

Story at a glance

  • A Hamline University professor lost her job after she showed a painting of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class.

  • Many Muslims believe visual depictions of Muhammad violate religious law.

  • The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement urging further examination of the situation surrounding the professor, saying it discourages such depictions but found no evidence that her lesson was Islamophobic by its definition.

A Muslim civil rights and advocacy group is saying that a professor showing a portrait of the Prophet Muhammad during an art history class, which resulted in her being fired from her position, was not Islamophobic and her university should reexamine the situation.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in a statement on Friday that it “strongly” discourages showing visual depictions of Muhammad, but the group draws a distinction between professors who analyze ancient paintings for academic purposes and people who use them to cause offense and spread hatred.

“What we find un-Islamic is not necessarily Islamophobic, and we must be careful to distinguish between those two concepts,” CAIR said.

Controversy arose at Hamline University, a private, liberal arts college in Minnesota, last semester when Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor, showed a 14th-century painting of Muhammad in her global art history class.

The New York Times reported that López Prater warned students ahead of time in her syllabus that the class would be shown images of religious figures like Muhammad and the Buddha and asked students to let her know if any of them had concerns with her plans. She told the Times that no one raised concerns to her, but she offered students the ability to step out of the class a few minutes in advance of showing the painting of Muhammad.

Many Muslims view physical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad as prohibited and violating principles of Islam.

The Times reported that a student in the class complained to the university’s administration, and other Muslim students at the university backed that student in calling for Hamline officials to act.

López Prater was relieved of her position effective the next semester, and officials denounced the situation as Islamophobic, saying that respect for Muslim students should have “superseded” academic freedom, the Times reported.

But CAIR said in its statement that it has not seen any evidence that López Prater had Islamophobic intent or took actions that meets the group’s standard of being Islamophobic.

The organization said it wanted to recognize that the classroom incident and discussions around it have impacted Muslim students at Hamline University.

“We fully support their right to be heard and we condemn the hateful abuse that has been directed at them online during this controversy,” it said.

CAIR said it does not hesitate to call out Islamophobia, but the group does not take the term lightly and it should not be used to pertain to anything seen as “insensitive, offensive or immoral.”

The group said academic freedom is an “important principle” of higher education, and Islam requires fairness and justice for all people. It said schools should consider Muslim students’ perspectives when deciding how to teach in a “considerate and welcoming environment.”

CAIR said all people involved in the matter, including university officials, faculty members, activists and community leaders, should reevaluate the situation.

“We are confident that Hamline University and other schools can 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,” CAIR said.

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