The news that a private liberal arts university in the United States has dismissed a professor for displaying a painting of the Prophet Muhammad, calling him an Islamophobia should worry us all.
Not because the Awakening has overstepped its bounds or because the Abolition of Culture has become a failure, but because it overreaches diversity among Muslims and threatens academic freedom and, by extension, democratic ideals. And because the cold also happens in Canada.
There was nothing sobering about Hamline University in Minnesota’s termination of the contract of Erica Lopez-Prater, the assistant professor — meaning she was not steady and working for little or no pay — who in October featured two medieval Islamic artworks in her class on world art history. In one of them, the face of the Prophet is covered. The other overtly depicts Muhammad receiving the revelation of the Qur’an from the angel Gabriel. To be awake is to wake up to societal injustices, not to further entrench them.
And it was not a culture of cancellation at play in the university, but a policy of appeasement, in this case by an institution that, like many, disguised its strategy of managing reputational risk in the language of inclusivity.
Fiennes Miller, the university’s president, and David Everett, associate vice president for all-around excellence, wrote in a letter to campus Dec. 9.
“Respect for observant Muslim students in that class should replace academic freedom.”
A month ago, Everett reported To call the lesson “disrespectful and anti-Islam”.
If Islamophobia is hatred and discrimination that stems from prejudice against Islam or Muslims, how does showing an element that is a cherished part of Islamic history perpetuate this hatred?
Many but not all Muslims believe that visual representations of the Prophet are forbidden, although the Qur’an does not explicitly prohibit them.
“If Islamophobia is characterized by anything that violates Islamic faith, we have a problem, because that doesn’t respect academic freedom,” says Enver Eamon, a professor at the University of Toronto and Canada’s Research Chair in Islamic Law and History.
“What is now being conveyed as Islamophobia is respect for certain forms of orthodoxy over others.”
By all accounts, Hamlin’s lecturer had informed the class in advance of what she would be showing and why, and invited them to bring any concerns to her. The class itself went smoothly.
However, a student who was also the president of the Muslim Students’ Union complained after the semester ended.
“I’m like, ‘This can’t be real,'” she is quoted as saying in the student newspaper. “As a Muslim and a black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I will ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and don’t show the same respect that I show them.”
I don’t know if the student didn’t listen to the teacher before class, or saw it as an opportunity to express a point of view. But clearly, for her, the lesson is related to the larger issue of not belonging.
I could see that the university had to do something, or be seen to be doing something, and figured that losing a contract employee was a lot easier than working hard to change its culture.
Wrong move. Students complain as it is their right. But universities are increasingly doing business students as customers Need to remember that they are not always right. Students’ feelings can and should be taken seriously and problems resolved through dialogue and building trust. It is not handled by HR. It is not used of its own free will to dictate the curriculum.
A similar class caused a stir at the University of Alberta last year. The involved professor is on vacation.
Jeeran Jahan, an assistant professor, ran afoul of the Muslim Students Association last February, ironically during a class on Islamophobia, after she shared photos of some medieval miniatures commissioned by a Muslim ruler depicting the Prophet.
Gahan told the Star that she was helping students understand why Muslims were angry about the 2012 Charlie Hebdo cartoon, but might not react so strongly to other Islamophobic instances. “The aim is to show the backlash (on Charlie Hebdo) is not just a religious debate. It is more than that. It is about moral damage.”
Given that the cartoon depicts the Prophet, she wanted to show historical diversity. To explain “How did we come to believe that there are no images of the Prophet? Where does this come from? What is the historical movement behind it? Is it absolute?”
Jahan says she never spoke to the student or students who complained despite attempts to do so, found her online rankings as a professor affected, and eventually had a fruitless discussion with an Islamic organization that took part.
By contrast, Eamon, like many scholars, showed pictures of Muhammad in class without giving advance warnings. He has a PowerPoint presentation that only looks at Islamic art and pictures of the Prophet. He has discussed and shown cartoons for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten from 2005 depicting Muhammad.
He says that the art portrays the Prophet as veneration and honor and also for courtly purposes. On the other hand, the cartoons do it for the sake of defamation and to embody the “non-belonging to Islam and Muslims in Europe.”
“This is the essential difference. And if we don’t take that into account, we ignore how every depiction of the Prophet is politics.”
For Emon, the situation in Hamline is not much different from Recruitment failure at U of T law school in 2020, when a major donor voiced objection to his plans to hire academic Valentina Azarova, who has previously been critical of Israel.
Asking professors not to discuss history, politics, or religion because it is uncomfortable for some is an unreasonable restraint.
This should not be confused with seeking to reform language, curricula, and practices that continue to harm the historically marginalized.
The former crushes intellectual inquiry. The latter seeks to hone critical thinking and ultimately support democratic principles of freedom, equality, and justice.
“We, the academy,” says Eamon, “are accused of violating something sacred, of not respecting something sacred, but we are not the keepers of theology, not the custodians of theology.”
“We are here as academics to question everything. And if society cannot sustain that, then there is democracy.”
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