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How art of the prophet Muhammad threw a college into the national spotlight

Aram Wedatalla, a Hamline University senior and the president of Muslim Student Association, speaks during a news conference in Minneapolis on Jan. 11. (Kerem Yücel/AP)
9 min

Hamline University in Minnesota has been embroiled in controversy after an adjunct art history professor said she was dismissed following complaints over her use of images depicting the prophet Muhammad during a lecture last fall. In recent weeks, the incident at the small liberal arts college has spilled into broader view and raised questions about campus inclusion, religious discrimination and academic freedom.

On Tuesday, attorneys for the professor, Erika López Prater, served Hamline with a lawsuit that, among other claims, alleges religious discrimination and defamation by the school. López Prater, through her lawyer, and Hamline University declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.

The situation has thrust Hamline, a private university in St. Paul that enrolls about 1,800 undergrads, into the national spotlight — for “all the wrong reasons,” the student newspaper lamented. Scholars in art history and other disciplines have been outraged by what they see as an affront to academic liberty and confused how sharing the medieval paintings of Muhammad made by Muslims could be construed as Islamophobic, as Hamline suggested before backtracking. Some of Hamline’s Muslim students, who are a minority at the school, and their allies have said that showing images of the prophet in any form is an attack on their core beliefs and that academic institutions have a right to restrict speech that creates a hateful or hostile environment.

What happened to López Prater’s job at Hamline?

López Prater’s contract as an adjunct professor was not renewed for the spring semester, contrary to her expectations, according David H. Redden, her attorney.

Hamline disputes the nonrenewal constitutes a “firing” or a “dismissal,” though Redden said the school is making a distinction without a difference.

“It’s a semantic argument that doesn’t really matter, because she had an employment relationship that was expected to continue based on representations made to her — and it wasn’t her decision,” Redden said of the nonrenewal.

López Prater was hired to teach a world art course for the fall semester, and was quickly invited to return and teach in the spring, though her contract at that point had not been formally renewed, according to the lawsuit.

On Oct. 6, López Prater held an online lecture in which she showed the paintings of Muhammad. According to the lawsuit, López Prater’s plan to show sacred images — and her guidance to religiously observant students seeking exemptions — were approved by her supervisor.

Immediately after the class, a student remained in the video session to express her outrage, which was echoed by other Muslim students and Hamline faculty in the subsequent days. Less than three weeks later, the school informed López Prater that her contract would not be renewed.

The lawsuit says López Prater’s supervisor did not respond when asked if the decision to cancel her spring contract stemmed from the Oct. 6 incident. In a public statement, Hamline said the decision not to offer López Prater another class was “made at the unit level and in no way reflects on her ability to adequately teach the class.”

As a contract employee at a private university, López Prater does not have the same free-speech and due-process protections under the First and Fourteenth amendments that she would at a public university, Redden said. But Redden argues that López Prater is protected by the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which defends people serving those of different religious faiths, and she can also file claims for other civil actions, like defamation.

What images were shown in the course?

During the Oct. 6 online session of López Prater’s class, she showed two medieval paintings that depict the prophet Muhammad. One is a 14th-century work called “The prophet Muhammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel.” The image appears in one of the earliest known illustrated Islamic histories, “A Compendium of Chronicles,” by Rashid-al-Din and depicts the Angel Gabriel giving Muhammad his first Quranic revelation; in Islam, the Quran is the most sacred text and believed to be the word of God.

During the same class, López Prater also displayed a 16th-century of image of Muhammad, shown with a veil over his face and body. Only his hands are visible, according to the complaint, which contends that both images are considered valuable works of religious art and world history that belong in a classroom and are respectful and reverent to Islam’s founder.

Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art in the history of art department at the University of Michigan, defended López Prater in a December essay in New Lines Magazine. Contrary to Hamline’s claim that the professor’s actions were “Islamaphobic,” Gruber writes, the shared images were made “almost without exception, by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons in respect for, and in exaltation of, Muhammad and the Quran.”

Depictions of the prophet Mohammed are considered sacrilegious to many Muslims — though there is not universal consensus on the issue within the faith community.

What is López Prater suing for?

López Prater names the trustees of Hamline University in her lawsuit and alleges, among other claims, religious discrimination under Minnesota’s Human Rights Law as well as defamation.

Redden said state law protects employees whose employment suffers from not conforming to the employer’s religious preferences, or if the employee “doesn’t comply with the religious-based discriminatory preferences of their customers.” In Hamline’s case, the customers are the students.

The lawsuit further alleges Hamline defamed López Prater by calling her actions “Islamophobic” and characterizing her conduct as “an act of intolerance,” among other statements.

Lopez Prater is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a jury trial.

Who took issue with López Prater’s class?

A senior and the president of Hamline University’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), Aram Wedatalla, was in the online class when the photos were shared, according to the Hamline Oracle.

“I’m like, ‘this can’t be real,’” Wedatalla told the Oracle. “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.”

In Wedatalla’s conversation with López Prater after class, she felt she was not heard. “I was ignored, belittled and disrespected,” Wedatalla said during a news conference on Jan. 11.

The day after the incident, on Oct. 7, Wedatalla emailed the MSA and the university administration. She met with the university’s president, Fayneese Miller, the Oracle reported.

At the suggestion of her supervisor, López Prater emailed Wedatalla the next day apologizing that the images made her uncomfortable and stating she did not intend to disrespect or upset anyone, according to the lawsuit.

At an MSA meeting, attended by the university administration, to discuss the incident, students discussed “repeated incidents of intolerance and hate speech in recent years, and asked about new forms of intervention,” the Oracle reported.

Wedatalla declined to speak to The Washington Post.

Has Hamline University changed its stance on the allegedly Islamophobic incident?

Since the incident has received national media attention, the university has backtracked on its earlier description of the incident as “Islamophobic.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Miller and the university’s chair, Ellen Watters, said the language they previously used did not reflect their sentiments on academic freedom. “Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed,” the statement read.

This contrasts with an email, mentioned in López Prater’s lawsuit, from senior administrator David Everett on Nov. 7 that described the incident in the classroom as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” The email did not identify the incident with names or dates.

“We believe that Hamline University’s retraction of the word 'Islamophobic’ is the right decision,” Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told The Post. “And we appreciate the passion the president had for protecting and respecting her students."

The statement on Tuesday from Watters and Miller also said academic freedom and support for students should coexist: “Finally, it was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not 'supersede’ academic freedom, the two co-exist.”

Hamline University told The Post that it has no further comments at this time.

What is the response from the Muslim community?

At a news conference on Jan. 11, CAIR’s local Minnesota chapter described the incident at Hamline as Islamophobic.

The chapter’s executive director, Jaylani Hussein, said that showing images of the prophet Muhammad is offensive and that most Muslims around the world oppose public display of the prophet’s images.

CAIR’s Minnesota chapter could not be reached for comment.

The official statement released by CAIR’s national office on Friday, however, said the classroom incident was not Islamophobic. Mitchell, the group’s national deputy director, told The Post that one of the reasons they reached this conclusion was because the professor didn’t have a bigoted intention and didn’t make a bigoted comment during the class.

“Based on what we know up to this point, we see no evidence that former Hamline University Adjunct Professor Erika López Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets our definition of Islamophobia,” CAIR’s national office wrote in the statement.

The statement said that while many Muslims consider visual depictions of the prophet Muhammad sacrilegious, it should also be noted that Muslim artists did draw reverential paintings of the prophet and that “Muslims are a diverse community and we respect that diversity.”

Other organizations, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, have also spoken in favor López Prater. The council issued a statement saying López Prater was wrongly fired. “Given the ubiquity of Islamophobic depictions of the prophet Muhammad, it hardly makes sense to target an art professor trying to combat narrow understandings of Islam,” the statement read.