WASHINGTON — An American professor has been sacked from her university post after showing her students images of the Prophet Muhammad, triggering controversy and a heated debate over academic freedom and religion.
Erika Lopez Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University in Minnesota, provoked an outcry among Muslim students when she displayed two centuries-old images depicting the founder of Islam, during her art history class last October.
Lopez Prater told The New York Times she was aware that many Muslims hold beliefs prohibiting such depictions, and that she warned students that she would be showing such imagery during the course, including a warning in her syllabus for the semester.
But despite the warnings, including one just minutes before she showed a 14th-century painting of the prophet, at least one Muslim student in the class launched a complaint.
Lopez Prater apologized in an email, the student told the school’s student newspaper, The Oracle.
But officials at the small private university in Saint Paul decided to dismiss the professor, deeming the showing of the images “disrespectful and Islamophobic,” The Oracle reported last month.
The move has left the school of roughly 2,000 undergraduates at the center of an uproar over free speech, academic liberty, and Muslim beliefs that showing any images of the Prophet Mohammed is sacrilege.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) wrote Hamline’s president, Fayneese Miller, saying the university violated its own “commitment to academic freedom and… free expression” for all.
“If Hamline is truly committed to academic freedom, it cannot take adverse action against faculty for displaying pedagogically relevant material in their classroom, regardless of whether it offends particular students,” FIRE wrote.
The Academic Freedom Alliance and PEN America have also criticized the university for firing Lopez Prater.
According to the student newspaper, Lopez Prater told students she was showing the artwork as a way to push back against the belief that Islam forbids any figurative depictions of holy personages.
“While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture,” Lopez Prater reportedly said, before showing the controversial image.
A petition filed with Change.org on December 24 expressing “outrage” at Lopez Prater’s dismissal and calling for an investigation into the incident has been signed by more than 7,700 Islamic history scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
Images of the prophet are considered blasphemous by many Muslims and have been known to stir controversy.
In 2015, two French Muslim brothers stormed the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo — which provocatively has published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad — and murdered 12 people.