It’s been four years since I first entered my university’s halls, excited about the centuries-old history within the walls of my academic institution. I remember thinking professors were intimidating, and the profession unattainable, but its social value was exponential. These individuals have studied long and hard, beat all the competition to be accepted into their programs, and become tenured at such fine institutions. They must know everything in their field.
It has surprised me to see professors acknowledge their ignorance of the subject at hand or, more importantly, the potential for their discussions to be inaccurate. I’ve heard Islamic studies professors say Shias worship Imam Ali (as) and that Ashura is a celebration, which is not accurate. From my own lived experience, I do not have complete trust in a professor’s knowledge, and a part of me will always have a tendency to question authority.
Recently, the New York Times reported that a lecturer showed a painting of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and lost her job. The lecturer was Professor Erika López Prater at Hamline University who actively chose to show images of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) face during her seminar-like class with around 30 students. While Islamically, this is prohibited as the Prophet is usually represented as a man with noor (light) covering his face, Professor López Prater hoped to utilize the content to educate her students.
She asked via email if anyone had any objections to the material, and to no surprise knowing many university students, no one had anything to say. Ultimately, Professor López Prater was met with harsh remarks, as well as a termination of her job, because of a complaining student who conjured over 1,800 signatures.
Out of respect to religion, Professor López Prater had an obligation to not show the image. She had asked her Muslim students for acceptance and she took their silence as the green light. However, the main problem is not whether her Muslim students approved or disapproved; rather, it is the fact that she committed the act in the first place. In my opinion, Professor López Prater put the disclaimer up because she knew it was wrong and she knew it would upset some Muslims.
All the disclaimers leading up to the viewing of the painted image of the Prophet (PBUH) indicated the professor knew this would be an issue. It isn’t a question of whether one or two Muslim students were okay with the portrait, but she clearly understood the significance of displaying the artwork. For example the multiple disclaimers and how other Muslims would feel she was disrespecting Islam as a whole. As an educator who has the ability to influence her students, I thought her actions were not responsible and unacceptable.
Professors can’t afford to make mistakes like this. I know they’re just regular people who make mistakes now and then, but their mistakes should not impede someone’s religious belief. Furthermore, as someone specializing in the field, or introducing such concepts in class, the educator has a responsibility of being mindful. I’m not giving you my tuition for you to make callous decisions at the expense of someone’s faith.
We can’t really say with certainty whether López Prater deserved to be fired, or whether her academic freedom was stripped away from her. I’m not focusing on the philosophy of her free will in the classroom setting, or whether her right was taken away (despite being a philosophy student.) I’m concerned about how often professors abuse their power and spread information that is inaccurate or harmful to any group or religion on campus.
I’ve taken what seems like a million seminars over the past four years, and I can say with absolute confidence that I’ve heard absurd things from science, humanities, and social science professors. Their false information can become the truth for students, endangering the lives and comfort of minority groups around campus, and later constructing damaging schemas in the workplace.
While I firmly believe what the lecturer did was inexcusable, Mehdi Hassan, the host of The Mehdi Hasan Show, recently provided a commentary regarding this situation explaining that cancel culture is often blown out of proportion, weaponized and exaggerated. He vouches for Professor López Prater, saying that the act of showing Prophet Muhammad’s face may be considered un-Islamic by the majority of the Islamic doctrine, but it is not an attack on Islam itself.
Hasan goes on to explain that it was warned that students may feel uncomfortable, and the professor herself had only wished to use the photo for the sake of education. He explains that It is a student’s responsibility to mention their discomfort when a professor asks them directly to share their concerns.
In a criticism of the “liberal non-Muslims” who played a role in firing Professor López Prater, Hasan mentions that “what they did was harmful, and not just to the poor adjunct professor.” Hasan says that despite their wishing to “stand with a marginalized community,” their attempts were uncalled for by firing someone who had no intention of hurting the Muslim community at Hamline to begin with.
As I said earlier, professors have the obligation to respect the boundaries, beliefs, and comfort levels of their students. Trigger warnings, disclaimers on the first day of class, and even simply avoiding potentially harmful content should be mandatory.
But I also understand that the professor probably had good intentions. Perhaps she thought that she was exciting her students because she included class content about Islam. Within religion, we do not harmfully scrutinize others, but rather, think of 70 excuses on their behalf. Having reminded myself that, while I believe showing the artwork was wrong, I don’t think it meant she deserved to be fired.