I had never heard of Hamline, a small private liberal arts university in St. Paul, Minn., until it burst into the headlines after a fracas over a picture of the Prophet Muhammad. In brief, Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor of art history, showed a celebrated 14th-century Persian miniature in her online class, having prepared her students ahead of time. Prater warned them in the syllabus that pictures of holy personages, including Muhammad, would be shown. (No one complained, she says.) She introduced the class by talking about the history of such images, which some but not all Muslims regard as blasphemous, and inviting anyone who didn’t want to see it to turn off their video. No one did, but after class, Aram Wedatalla, a business major and head of the Muslim Student Association, complained to the administration.
In an e-mail to students, David Everett, the university’s vice president of inclusive excellence, described showing the picture as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” In an e-mail to faculty, Everett and Hamline president Fayneese Miller wrote that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” López Prater was told she would not be rehired for the next semester. After a national uproar with assists from PEN America, the ACLU, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Muslim organizations weighing in on both sides, and a looming lawsuit from López Prater, the administration backed down. (“Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep.”)
In a better world, Hamline would be famous for other things, such as the fact that 40 percent of its undergraduates received Pell Grants (government funding for low-income students) in the 2020–21 academic year. That warmed my heart. Nationally, for public and private colleges, only 33.6 percent of students received Pells in 2020, and, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the rate is much lower among private colleges. At Oberlin, one of the most left-leaning campuses in the country, only 8.4 percent of students have them. In a better world, we’d also pay more attention to the fact that in 2021 Hamline eliminated its art history major, part of the general starvation of the humanities happening throughout higher education. Still, here we are. I have questions.
Have we really reached the stage where accusations of blasphemy can get a professor fired? Seriously, blasphemy? In a secular college? In the United States? What century is this? When it comes to being offended on religious grounds, anyone can play the game. A Catholic student can accuse his history professor of bigotry for speaking with insufficient respect for the doctrine of papal infallibility. A fundamentalist Protestant can insist that a biology professor accept an exam answer claiming that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. A Jewish foreign-relations student can insist on an A for a paper claiming that God gave Jews the land of Israel. Left meets right; deference to religion meets the cult of My Feelings.
Speaking of critical thinking, can we stop applying the word “Islamophobia” indiscriminately? “Phobia” is a psychological term that means irrational fear. If you think a Muslim family moving into your neighborhood means tomorrow you’ll be living under sharia law, that’s Islamophobia. Back in 2015, a Texas high school had 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed arrested as a bomb maker after he proudly showed his teacher a clock he’d made out of a pencil case. That was Islamophobia. It is not Islamophobic to publicly doubt that Muhammad flew to heaven and back on a magical horselike creature or to conclude that the Quran is the work of human beings, not the direct word of God. The same thought process applies to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Greek myth. Islam is a religion like other religions, and as such should be open to critique and dispute. It’s hardly racist or bigoted to believe we have the right not to live according to religious beliefs we don’t share. That would be true even if every single Muslim who ever lived had banned depictions of Muhammad, which they haven’t. In fact, the miniature in question was painted by a Muslim artist for a Muslim ruler.
One of the problems with the way we think about diversity is to assume vulnerable social groups are monolithic and not themselves diverse. Islam is the world’s second-largest religion, and it’s centuries old—the beliefs of some individuals within it shouldn’t be mistaken for the whole. Some of the strongest critiques of Hamline’s attack on academic freedom have come from Muslims. After the local branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the premier Muslim American civil rights organization, accused López Prater of engaging in “hate speech,” the national office issued a statement on the incident that defended her, as did the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Nothing could be more devotional to Mohammed than depicting him at the very moment of the birth of the religion of Islam,” the journalist Hisham Melhem wrote at ForeignPolicy.com.
Among the Muslim academics defending López Prater was Lake Forest College professor Ahmad Sadri, who wrote in the Dallas Morning News that he was offended not just as a scholar of Muslim history but “as a practicing Muslim who loves the Persian visual tradition of illumination and miniature painting. A global understanding of Islam is impossible in absence of the Islamic art, mysticism and poetry that includes portrayals of the Prophet.” On Al Jazeera’s website, the Rutgers law professor Sahar Aziz argued that the real problem is “the systematic adjunctification of university faculty.” Untenured faculty on short contracts are now the norm, and their relative powerlessness promotes the mentality that the customer—i.e., the student—is always right, especially at struggling institutions like Hamline.
López Prater showed kindness in preparing her students so carefully, not that it mattered. But where does it end? Art history is full of disturbing imagery. Torture, brutality, murder, war, rapes, anti-Semitism and racism and misogyny galore. We need—students need—to look at art in all its beauty and horror and humanity and complexity if we are ever to understand ourselves.
Maybe the best thing that could come out of the Hamline controversy would be for the university to bring back the art history major, and have the administrators audit it.