Case of the portrait of Muhammad: the president of the Christian Methodist University Hamline announces her retirement

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The case had caused a stir around the world against a backdrop of inclusivity, the Methodist Hamline University had chosen, at the end of 2022, to separate from a professor who had shown a painting representing the prophet of Muslims Muhammad and the angel Gabriel. Strongly criticized for having minimized academic freedom, Fayneese Miller has just announced that she will leave the presidency of the university next year.

On October 6, Erika López Prater, associate professor at the small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, showed students a painting of the angel Gabriel and the prophet Muhammad. It was a course on a "Compendium of Chronicles" written by Rashid al-Din in the XNUMXth century and which contains the first Islamic illustrations.

The course taking place at a distance, the professor had warned the students that they were not required to attend the entire broadcast, so as not to offend the feelings of those for whom any representation of Muhammad is prohibited. She had already told them when presenting the syllabus of the program at the beginning of the school year that they could contact her if elements of the course bothered them.

Despite these precautions, a Sudanese Muslim student, Aram Wedatalla, took the entire course before complaining in the university newspaper, The Oracle, that she did not feel respected as a black, Muslim woman.

Wedatalla, president of the Association of Muslim Students of Hamline, even organized, in January, a press conference organized with an Islamic association, CAIR-Minnesota (local branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations). She then said:

"I was extremely hurt by what this teacher did and I could never bring myself to come back to this class again. My voice was not heard at all, and I felt ignored, belittled." 

The student added that when she spoke about her worries to the university management, she felt respected. Hamline officials had chosen to scrap López Prater's course from the following semester.

According to the New York Times of January 8 who devoted a long article to the subject, the university's vice president in charge of inclusive excellence, David Everett, had sent employees an email calling the contested elements of the course "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic." For her part, the president, Miller, had co-signed an e-mail saying that the respect due to Muslim students "should have taken priority over academic freedom".

Critique of the primacy of student sensitivity over academic freedom

The reaction of the Hamline authorities had caused a stir in academic and media circles in the United States. Among the critics, that of Christiane Gruber had strongly counted. Professor of Islamic Art at the University of Michigan, Gruber had written an article in New Lines Magazine, at the end of December, pointing out that López Prater could never speak to explain his course in order to defend himself.

She notes that the article by a professor of religion, a specialist in Islam, which contextualized the course given by his colleague, was deleted two days after its publication on The Oracle. Gruber points out that this masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting is taught even in universities in the Muslim world, and that it "was made to exalt the prophecy of Muhammad […], which makes it an Islamophile artistic enterprise" and not Islamophobic.

The magazine The Dispatch had published an article saying that Hamline had "had a bold bid to be the new standard-bearer for universities wanting to forget the principles of academic freedom and free expression", but that it stood out from other universities for its willingness to be so explicit in this choice. As a result of this choice, Hamline University is likely to lose its accreditation, as it has pledged to the Higher Learning Commission to "respect academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning".

An increasingly challenged president

Hamlin's website announces that Miller will leave on June 30, 2024, but without mentioning this controversy. The article points out that the president "has built the university's reputation as an institution that welcomes students from diverse backgrounds, including students of color, LGBTQ+ students." He quotes the words of the leader for whom “it has been an honor and a privilege to lead Hamline University, an institution that values ​​social justice, equity, inclusion and civic engagement”.

The announcement of Miller's planned departure comes after a lawsuit was filed in January by López Prater whose lawyers observe that "Hamline's actions and statements are likely to constitute religious discrimination, fall under the defamation and other violations of the law".

The high media coverage of the case means that his name is now linked to an allegation of Islamophobia, they explain, adding that it is hampering his job search. One of the lawyers told KMSP, the local branch of Fox News, that the teacher's life was so disrupted that it seems she "felt like the crazy one and everyone was seeing something she didn't understand."

A week later, the faculty asked its administrator to resign :

"We dispute the baseless accusations of Islamophobia and we no longer have confidence in President Miller's ability to lead the university. There has been a crisis on campus, and it has been seen by the whole world. "

The professors noted that Minnesota's oldest university has "a great tradition of leadership, of committed people" and that they believe new leadership is needed to "restore that reputation."

The decision to separate from López Prater was all the more incomprehensible since the professor had been recruited to teach about the importance of art as cultural expression through time and from a global perspective. The angle chosen was intended to address religious topics for the purpose of better mutual understanding, and there was no evidence that the teacher had behaved unprofessionally or used teaching material that was not relevant to this subject. subject.

Jean Sarpedon

Image credit: Creative Commons / Flickr

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