US professor sues university over Prophet Muhammad image row

University says it is reviewing actions after art professor’s contract not renewed amid student objection.

Hamline University, in Saint Paul, Minnesota
Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota in the US has said it is reviewing its actions [Courtesy: Creative Commons]

A professor in the United States has announced plans to sue a Minnesota university following a row over her showing a painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on Islamic art.

Hamline University, a small, private school in the city of St Paul, chose not to renew Adjunct Professor Erika Lopez Prater’s contract after a student objected to her showing a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on Islamic art as part of Lopez Prater’s global art course.

For many Muslims, visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are strictly forbidden and seen as a violation of faith. The lawsuit, which Lopez Prater’s lawyers said on Tuesday will soon be filed in court, reiterated the professor’s previous statement that she had offered warnings before showing the image – including in the syllabus and immediately before showing the image – and had volunteered to work with students uncomfortable with viewing the depictions.

The suit has alleged the university subjected Lopez Prater to religious discrimination and defamation, and damaged her professional and personal reputation.

“Among other things, Hamline, through its administration, has referred to Dr Lopez Prater’s actions as ‘undeniably Islamophobic,’” her attorneys said in a statement.

“Comments like these, which have now been published in news stories around the globe, will follow Dr Lopez Prater throughout her career, potentially resulting in her inability to obtain a tenure track position at any institution of higher education.”

The incident, which occurred in October, has sparked debate over the balance of religious consideration and academic freedom, with the school administration appearing to shift its stance on the issue amid the backlash.

According to the New York Times, Hamline University’s vice president for inclusive excellence told staff in an email sent in November that the actions in the class were “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic”.

In a statement on Tuesday, Hamline University’s President Fayneese Miller and its Board of Trustees Chair Ellen Watters took a more circumspect approach, saying recent “communications, articles and opinion pieces” have led the school to “review and re-examine our actions”.

“Like all organisations, sometimes we misstep,” the statement said. “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our 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 university did not directly respond to the lawsuit, but added it plans to hold two public conversations in the coming months, one on academic freedom and student care and another on academic freedom and religion.

The national headquarters for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has also weighed in on the issue, drawing a distinction between showing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad for academic purposes as opposed to in a negligent or malicious context and noting some Muslim groups throughout history “did draw paintings depicting the Prophet hundreds of years after his passing”.

“Based on what we know up to this point, we see no evidence that former Hamline University Adjunct Professor Erika Lopez Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets our definition of Islamophobia,” the group said in a statement released last week.

They added the statement was the “sole official position of CAIR nationwide. Any contradictory prior statements do not represent CAIR’s stance”. The statement appeared to respond to an earlier petition posted by CAIR’s Minnesota chapter that condoned the university’s actions.

In a press conference hosted by the local chapter last week, Aram Wedatalla, a 23-year-old senior at the school, had identified herself as the student who made the initial complaint.

“It just breaks my heart that I have to stand here to tell people that something is Islamophobic and something actually hurts all of us, not only me,” said Wedatalla, who is the president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies