Muslim org defends professor who was fired for showing painting of Prophet Mohammed: ‘Should be thanked’

The Muslim Public Affairs Council is calling for Hamline University to reverse its decision and rehire a professor who was accused of Islamophobia after showing a picture of the Prophet Mohammed in an art history class.

The prominent Muslim organization released a statement on Monday that, in essence, demanded that the university rehire art history professor Erika López Prater.

MPAC went so far as to praise López Prater’s teaching and assert that she is not Islamophobic despite the claims of a number of students who took offense to the picture because of religious beliefs.

“It is with great concern that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) views the firing of an art professor, Erika López Prater, from Hamline University on the grounds of showing a fourteenth-century painting depicting the Prophet Muḥammad. We issue this statement of support for the professor and urge the university to reverse its decision and to take compensatory action to ameliorate the situation,” their statement contended.

“News sources report that the matter reached the university administration after a Muslim student complained to them about the professor showing the image in class. Subsequently, undergraduate students at the university received an email from the administration declaring the incident to be ‘undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.’ Because the professor was hired as an adjunct, her contract was not renewed and she was effectively fired,” the statement continued.

MPAC went on to explain why the professor’s presentation of the picture was not offensive.

“As a Muslim organization, we recognize the validity and ubiquity of an Islamic viewpoint that discourages or forbids any depictions of the Prophet, especially if done in a distasteful or disrespectful manner. However, we also recognize the historical reality that other viewpoints have existed and that there have been some Muslims, including and especially Shīʿī Muslims, who have felt no qualms in pictorially representing the Prophet (although often veiling his face out of respect). All this is a testament to the great internal diversity within the Islamic tradition, which should be celebrated,” the group noted.

“This, it seems, was the exact point that Dr. Prater was trying to convey to her students. She empathetically prepared them in advance for the image, which was part of an optional exercise and prefaced with a content warning. ‘I am showing you this image for a reason,’ stressed the professor,” it went on and highlighted her words, “There is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.”

The organization believes that López Prater should be thanked for what she did, not punished for it.

“The painting was not Islamophobic. In fact, it was commissioned by a fourteenth-century Muslim king in order to honor the Prophet, depicting the first Quranic revelation from the angel Gabriel,” MPAC pointed out.

“Even if it is the case that many Muslims feel uncomfortable with such depictions, Dr. Prater was trying to emphasize a key principle of religious literacy: religions are not monolithic in nature, but rather, internally diverse. This principle should be appreciated in order to combat Islamophobia, which is often premised on flattening out Islam and viewing the Islamic tradition in an essentialist and reductionist manner. The professor should be thanked for her role in educating students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and for doing so in a critically empathetic manner,” the organization concluded.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council is just the latest group to stand with López Prater over her actions on October 6 and to chastise the university for terminating her.

The professor showed the class a 14th-century depiction of the angel Gabriel delivering the Prophet’s first revelation. She gave students two minutes to look away from the screen or log out if they deemed it offensive.

However, Aram Wedatalla, a student who is also the president of the university’s Muslim association, remained online despite the warning. She then proceeded to complain to school officials that the image “blindsided” her and made her feel marginalized, according to the Daily Mail.

López Prater was originally told by department head Allison Baker that she had done “everything right.” Nevertheless, after more students complained, she was fired. Some of the students were not even in the class.

Many Muslim students are now coming forward in defense of López Prater and are denouncing the school for letting her go.

A Change.org petition has had over 10,000 signatures in support of the professor. It calls for an independent investigation into her firing since López Prater was not afforded “due process.”

An international group of scholars and students that are both Muslim and non-Muslim and who specialize in Islamic history, studies, and arts wrote a letter on December 24 that formed the basis of the petition calling for López Prater to be reinstated to her position at the university, according to Newsweek. ­

“It is our understanding that Dr. López Prater noted in her syllabus that such images would be included in the course, that the visual exercise and discussion were optional, and that she gave verbal cues both before and after the image was shown in their online class,” the letter said. “The student who complained about its inclusion in the course was thus given not one but several opportunities to not engage with the image (and it should be noted that a number of faculty do not include such warnings or options to disengage from historical evidence in their courses).”

“Due process appears to have been entirely suspended, thus raising serious concerns about faculty governance and rights at Hamline University,” it added.

In the letter, the academics “express our outrage” that López Prater was dismissed.

Following the incident, the university’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence called the lesson “undeniably Islamophobic” in an interview with The Oracle.

“It was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community,” he claimed.

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