Since learning about Hamline University’s recent firing of an instructor, the flurry of thoughts and feelings I’ve had resembles the inside of a snow globe.
Readers probably know the story by now. Erika López Prater, an adjunct instructor of art history, showed students a 14th-century devotional image of the Prophet Muhammad. At least one Muslim student was offended enough to persuade administrators that the instructor was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” Lopez Prater was subsequently un-invited to teach another class next semester.
As a retired religious studies professor, my initial reaction was anger at the administration for what I perceived as a display of cultural ignorance and disdain for my discipline. As one scholar put it, “To make blanket statements that this is prohibited…shows illiteracy about religion.” Another said, “Hamline has privileged an ultraconservative Muslim view…that Muslims are banned from viewing images of the prophet.”
I also felt an initial need to defend the adjunct instructor, who had an—apparently unfounded—expectation of academic freedom. Like many Hamline professors who complained about a “chilling effect,” and others who signed petitions or made accreditation complaints, I’m instinctually alarmed every time I see another “egregious violation” against the liberal arts and its most vulnerable employees. If art historians can’t show art to students, I thought, why does art history even exist? (Back in my day it was “Piss Christ” that offended my Christian sensibilities, but—although there are significant differences between that situation and the current one—it would never have occurred to me to question a professor.)
But the more I mulled it over, the more uncomfortable I became with my own instincts. A main reason for that discomfort is that, it seems clear from the reporting, López Prater is not a Muslim. Were this an intra-Muslim debate, the university would likely have had a harder time adjudicating between parties. In my opinion, Muslims can legitimately step into this argument, but it’s really not for non-Muslims to say what Muslim students should or shouldn’t consider disrespectful.
Upon further reading I also felt uncomfortable with defenders’ tone, starting with López Prater’s preemptive self-defense:
“While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on [depictions of holy personages], I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.”
A supportive colleague concurred:
“These students, like many religious people, do not know about some aspects of their own tradition.”
Phrases like these students and I would like to remind you might be innocent in their intent, but they come across as professor-splaining. (In fairness, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of the same.)
Similarly, a petition calling for the instructor’s reinstatement bears more than a whiff of condescension. “The student who complained about [the image’s] inclusion in the course was given not one but several opportunities to not engage with the image,” it says. But how inclusive can a classroom be if minority students are forced to opt out, just so the majority can gawk (or more likely yawn) at something deeply meaningful to the minority?
The petition then turns around and disingenuously claims to speak for Muslim students, “who wish to be taught the historical nuances and complexities of the Islamic faith,” and who “are now too fearful to speak up, lest they be accused of hate and discrimination as well.”
Comments from Aram Wedatalla, the student who made the original complaint, are both enlightening and heartbreaking. “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong,” she said, “and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member.” I’m largely unfamiliar with Hamline, but it appears to be a majority White school in a majority White state (where I also live), so it’s a safe bet that Muslims make up only a small portion of the campus community, putting them in an already precarious position. At least several of these students—all Somali Muslim women—found the instructor’s actions harmful, and were courageous enough to say so on the record.
Many things can be true at once. No, not all Muslims are offended by images of the Prophet. Yes, Muslim traditions are diverse. No, higher education cannot flourish without academic freedom. Yes, professors are only human and don’t deserve to be fired over a single disagreement or unintentional offense.
But was this particular offense actually unintentional? Ultimately the direct cause of the controversy is that the instructor knew she was going to offend the Muslim students entrusted to her, and she did it anyway. That’s a pretty good example of punching down. A non-Muslim instructor showing images of Muhammad to Muslim students, purportedly for their own good, feels a bit like a White professor insisting on saying the n-word to make a point. It might be “relevant.” Perhaps one even has a “right” to say such things. But so what? Is there really no other way to make the point—preferably one that doesn’t stigmatize minority students?
As the snow in my brain settles, I find myself agreeing with Hamline’s president, Fayneese Miller, who reasoned, “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” Later she said, “it was important that our Muslim students, as well as other students, feel safe, supported, and respected both in and out of the classroom.”
For the record, I do not see López Prater’s actions as “Islamophobic”; Edward Ahmed Mitchell’s term “un-Islamic” seems much more accurate. But “undeniably inconsiderate” seems fair. In the end, what might have been a valuable learning moment has instead become a lose-lose situation. Absolutely everyone involved is at least a little bit worse off. Knowing the risks of prioritizing her own freedom over creating a truly inclusive classroom, the teacher made a bad call. Now she’s living with her choices. The rest of us are too.