(RNS) — The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement Friday (Jan. 13), saying an art history instructor at Hamline University did not act with bigoted intent when she showed a 14th-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad in a class last semester.
The statement, issued as “the official position” of the national organization, counteracts remarks made by its Minnesota chapter’s executive director, who said the classroom viewing of the painting was Islamophobic. That’s also the view taken by university administrators who said showing the painting was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
The university canceled instructor Erika López Prater’s contract to teach another class in the spring semester after a student filed a complaint, engulfing the university in a firestorm over academic freedom and Islamic representational art.
“Based on what we know up to this point, we do not see evidence that the former Hamline University Adjunct Professor Erika López Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets the definition of Islamophobia,” the CAIR statement said.
CAIR’s official statement adds to those made by other Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which said it supported the instructor and called on the university to “reverse its decision and to take compensatory action to ameliorate the situation.”
Other groups, such as the Middle East Studies Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and PEN America, have also objected to the university’s apparent violation of academic freedom.
Prater gave students prior warnings both in class and on her syllabus that she would show the image and allowed students who believe images of the prophet are forbidden not to participate. The image, a prized medieval painting included in a manuscript written by a 14th-century Muslim statesman and scholar, illustrates Muhammad’s call to prophecy by the Angel Gabriel.
But that did nothing to assuage the university or the local CAIR chapter, both of whom rushed to defend a Muslim student who complained to administrators that the image was offensive.
The chairperson of Hamline University’s board of trustees issued a statement Friday saying it was reviewing its policies and responses.
On Wednesday, CAIR Minnesota’s executive director, Jaylani Hussein, called a press conference in which he denounced the instructor for engaging in hate speech. He spoke alongside Hamline University senior Aram Wedatalla, who held back tears as she described how hurt she felt by the showing of the image in her class. Wedatalla, who is president of the Muslim Student Association on campus, complained about it to administrators.
On Thursday, the Minnesota CAIR chapter issued a petition in support of the university and its Muslim students, saying, “displaying the image of the Prophet (PBUH) is intended to communicate hate.”
But on Friday, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national deputy director of CAIR, said the official statement supersedes previous remarks by the local chapter.
“We respect the opinion expressed at a local level but those opinions do not reflect the opinion of the organization,” Mitchell said. “Any past statements made by anyone that counter what we say today is no longer valid.”
Mitchell said he met with Prater and had “a positive and productive conversation.”
He also said CAIR discourages teachers from showing paintings of the Prophet Muhammad because many Muslims consider it sacrilegious.
CAIR’s statement also acknowledged that Muslim views on artistic representations of the prophet are not monolithic.
“It is important to note that Muslim artists in some regions did draw reverential paintings of the prophet in later Muslim history and that some Muslims use certain images as part of their religious practices. Muslims are a diverse community and we respect that diversity.”
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The statement also referred to another artistic portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad on a frieze of great lawmakers etched in marble inside a Supreme Court chamber. In 1997, CAIR asked then Chief Justice William Rehnquist to modify or remove the depiction of the prophet. The Supreme Court declined to remove Muhammad’s likeness but did make some modifications to the frieze.
“We never condemned the Supreme Court as Islamophobic,” the statement said.
Hussein did not return phone calls Friday.
Todd Green, a scholar who serves as executive director of America Indivisible, a nonprofit organization addressing anti-Muslim and other forms of bigotry, said he welcomed the national CAIR statement, especially its exoneration of Prater.
“I am particularly pleased with the kindness, compassion, and generosity of spirit that CAIR extends to her in this statement,” Green said in an email. “CAIR shows her a level of dignity and respect that is a far cry from how Hamline’s leadership treated her.”
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