Two national Muslim organizations this week encouraged Hamline University to re-examine its decision not to retain an art instructor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad, while a state Muslim group reiterated its belief that the teacher's actions were Islamophobic.
In a statement Friday, the national office for the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it strongly discourages people from showing images of the prophet but drew a distinction between professors showing them in an academic setting and others who intend to attack or mock their religion.
"What we find un-Islamic is not necessarily Islamophobic, and we must be careful to distinguish between those two concepts," the group said. "Academics should not be condemned as bigots without evidence or lose their positions without justification."
The group's statement — which it said reflects "the sole official position of CAIR" — was in direct contrast to remarks made earlier this week by leaders of the group's Minnesota chapter, which reiterated its support for Hamline University administrators who chose not to renew the instructor's contract.
Hamline University administrators find themselves under national scrutiny as groups debate how schools should respond when concerns about academic freedom and religious tolerance seem to collide. Some groups have said the university needed to act to support an increasingly diverse student body, while others have said it overstepped and inappropriately waded into a religious disagreement.
Hamline's board of trustees said Friday that it was reviewing university policies, as well as concerns raised by students and staff.
"Upholding academic freedom and fostering an inclusive, respectful learning environment for our students are both required to fulfill our mission," the board said in a statement. "We will move forward together and we will be stronger for it."
Scholars and religious leaders have sometimes disagreed about whether Islam permits images of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims argue that the images are strictly prohibited to avoid idolizing someone other than Allah. Others have images of the prophet in their homes.
In a world art class this fall, adjunct instructor Erika López Prater showed students two centuries-old artworks that depicted the prophet receiving revelations from the angel Gabriel that would later form the basis for the Qur'an. She said she spent "at least a couple minutes" preparing students for the images.
One of her students, Aram Wedatalla, president of Hamline's Muslim Student Association, saw the warning as proof the instructor shouldn't have shown the artwork. She contacted university administrators, who later described the action as "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic" — a characterization López Prater found deeply concerning.
López Prater had been talking to department leaders about teaching another class in the spring semester; the university didn't renew her contract.
The university's response elicited a strong reaction from some professors who fear it could have a chilling effect in higher education.
"It is completely within this student's rights to dispute the acceptability of these images from a faith perspective, or to argue that such images are un-Islamic," said Todd Green, a former associate professor of religion at Luther College who teaches about Islamophobia. "At the same time, it's not the job of a professor to adjudicate on matters of Islamic orthodoxy. Debates over what is and is not the proper understanding of Islam — or in this case, Islamic art — belong to Muslim communities alone."
Some national groups promoting academic freedom and Hamline's past president raised concerns about the university's handling of the situation, as did the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which encouraged Hamline to "reverse its decision and to take compensatory action to ameliorate the situation."
In a letter to the editor, past university president Linda Hanson said: "Whether through a miscalculation of the outcomes of the decision or through a hastened process that did not explore what Islamophobia is, it is time for the university to reinstate the professor and use this incident as an opportunity for discussion, student learning and support for academic freedom in Hamline classrooms."
In a statement earlier this week, university President Fayneese Miller said the decision not to renew López Prater's contract was made "at the unit level," and she continued to defend it.
"It is far easier to criticize, from the security of our computer screens, than it is to have to make the hard decisions that serve the interests of the entire campus community," she said.
She added: "To do all the good you can means, in part, minimizing harm. That is what has informed our decisions thus far and will continue to inform them in the future."
At a news conference earlier this week, Wedatalla and leaders from the Minnesota chapter of CAIR reiterated their support for Miller and other administrators, saying they had taken steps to ensure students feel safe and respected.
"Islamophobia can manifest in a variety of ways," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, who has said sometimes the less violent or less blatant forms are hardest to combat.
In that news conference, Wedatalla said she supports freedom of speech — but not when it's disrespectful. The 23-year-old cried as she recounted how she had never seen an image of the Prophet Muhammad before that class.
She said, "It hurts and it breaks my heart to stand here and beg people to understand me, to feel what I feel."
Staff writer Erica Pearson contributed to this report.