Council on American-Islamic Relations defends 'Islamophobic' prof dumped for showing Muhammad art

National statement undermines Minnesota affiliate backing Muslim Student Association president, who complained about Hamline University art history professor Erika López Prater.

Published: January 13, 2023 11:02am

Updated: January 13, 2023 11:49am

The national Council on American-Islamic Relations undermined its Minnesota affiliate by publicly backing former Hamline University art history professor Erika López Prater, an adjunct whose contract was not renewed after she showed students Muslim-commissioned artwork depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The highly unusual statement also pulls the rug out from the private university, whose diversity chief described Prater's opt-out classroom lesson as "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic" in a campuswide message last fall.

"This statement represents the sole official position of CAIR," which is speaking out to "clarify where our entire organization stands on local issues with national implications," the three-page statement reads. CAIR's Minnesota affiliate is backing Prater's accuser, Muslim Student Association president Aram Wedatalla.

While it validated Muslim young people who have "grown up through two decades of open bigotry" in politics, media and "their daily lives," CAIR rejects the use of "Islamophobia" as a "catch-all term for anything that we find insensitive, offensive or immoral," it said.

The statement explains the "long, rich and unique history" of Islamic art, echoing Prater's colleagues at Hamline and other universities.

While "ancient teachings ... limited, discouraged or outright forbade" drawing living beings "anywhere near" Muhammad's lifetime, "Muslim artist in some regions did draw reverential paintings" of the prophet "in later Muslim history" and some Muslims used it "as part of their religious practices," CAIR said.

The organization has "forcefully condemned" those who show Muhammad depictions "to cause offense" while "politely discouraging ... positive depictions" in mainstream American institutions including the Supreme Court, which has a frieze of Muhammad as a "great lawgiver." CAIR, however, "never condemned the Supreme Court as Islamophobic."

CAIR compared the treatment of Prater to professors who are censored or fired for teaching "structural racism in America" and "the oppression of Palestinians." 

Those who "analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes," the statement reads, finding "no evidence" at this point that Prater's conduct "meets our definition of Islamophobia. ... Academics should not be condemned as bigots without evidence or lose their jobs without justification."

The group further praised Prater for reportedly giving students "ample warning, a chance to express their concerns, and reasonable religious accommodations," a model all universities should follow. CAIR Minnesota had said Prater's warnings were irrelevant.

CAIR natiional offered to help Hamline and universities respect students' religious beliefs while treating faculty "fairly" and protecting academic freedom.

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