An art professor was fired from an American university for showing a respectful Medieval painting of the 7th-century religious leader Muhammad.
Erika López Prater’s termination by Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, comes after a Muslim student complained, even though Prater had previously invited students with deep-seated religious beliefs or iconoclastic tendencies to approach her with concerns.
Blasphemy laws on campus
Unlike the images of Muhammad that the murdered French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo published or the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons that sparked deadly Islamist violence worldwide in early 2006, the image Prater showed to her virtual class is neither parodic nor contextually offensive.
The New York Times reported that Prater showed her art class an image of a 14th-century painting from one of the oldest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, entitled, “A Compendium of Chronicles” by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, himself a Muslim painting for a Muslim patron.
The painting, now housed at the University of Edinburgh, depicts the angel Gabriel conferring to Muhammad the first Quranic revelation.
Prater shared another illustration of Muhammad. This second image, wherein Muhammad is depicted with a halo and wearing a veil, was created in the 16th century by Mustafa ibn Vali.
Prater told the New York Times that she had anticipated there might be some controversy over her sharing a historic work of art with her art history class. Accordingly, she took precautions to make sure nobody would be caught off guard, giving students ample opportunity to leave the room in the event that they might be uncomfortable.
The professor allegedly also noted in her syllabus that such images would be included in the course.
When showing the image to her forewarned class on Oct. 6, 2022, Prater reportedly explained why she was showing the image and couched its display in a discussion of how different religions have depicted the divine.
After the lecture, one student was left enraged, notwithstanding Prater’s many warnings and explanations.
Prater contacted Allison Baker, her department head, noting that a student expressed grievances about her lecture.
Baker wrote back, “It sounded like you did everything right. … I believe in academic freedom so you have my support.”
The administration’s turned out to be vaporous.
Academic freedom with notable exceptions
The student who claimed to be offended was Aram Wedatalla, a Sudanese business student who heads the university’s Muslim Student Association.
Wedatalla told the Oracle, the student paper, “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.”
Prater had written to Wedatalla on Oct. 8, apologizing for making her “uncomfortable” and causing her “emotional agitation.”
The professor also reminded Wedatalla that she let the virtual class know ahead of time what images would be shown so that they could turn off their video, noting, “I also described every subsequent slide I showed with language to indicate when I was no longer showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad. I am sorry that despite my attempt to prevent a negative reaction, you still viewed and were troubled by this image.”
Despite Prater’s warnings in advance and apologies afterwards, Wedatalla waged a campaign against the professor, seeking punitive measures. Wedatalla’s striving proved successful.
The university’s president, Fayneese Miller, stated, “Respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”
In early November, the dean of students sent a campus-wide email signed by Dr. David Everett, associate vice president of “Inclusive Excellence,” condemning the display of art in the art class, calling it “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
At a Dec. 8 forum where Wedatalla tearfully implored the university to punish Prater for discussing a painting in an art class, Mark Berkson, a religion professor at the university said, “What does one do when the Islamic community itself is divided on an issue? Because there are many Muslim scholars and experts and art historians who do not believe that this was Islamophobic.”
News Lines Magazine reported that Prater was not given a public platform or forum to discuss her lecture before or after her character assassination by the school’s administrators.
The art professor told the Oracle, “My perspective and actions have been lamentably mischaracterized, my opportunities for due process have been thwarted, and Dr. Everett’s all-employee email accusation that ‘undeniably… Islamophobic’ actions undertaken in my class on Oct. 6 have been misapplied.”
Prater was ultimately exited from her role and prevented from teaching at Hamline in the spring.
Everett’s office claimed, “It was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.”
PEN America, a writers’ group that sometimes promotes free expression, released a statement on Dec. 23, denouncing the university’s capitulation to iconoclasts.
Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, wrote, “Not only is an art history professor well within their rights to show medieval and Renaissance Islamic artworks in class, but the professor apparently took added care to create a positive pedagogical experience for students – placing the images in historical context, allowing students to opt out of viewing them, and thoughtfully exploring the history and diversity of Islamic art and thought.”
“Hamline University has committed one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory,” Young added.