The NYT finally writes about the Hamline University/Muhammad story, and Kenan Malik offers his take

January 9, 2023 • 10:45 am

“Respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superceded academic freedom.”

—Fayneese Miller, President, Hamline University

And so Hamline University joins the Big Two of other liberal-arts schools that have embarrassed themselves via the administration’s defense of the indefensible: The Evergreen State College and Oberlin College. Evergreen defended thuggish students who were out to hunt down Bret Weinstein for saying he wouldn’t leave campus on the “Day of Absence,” while Oberlin defended three students who shoplifted wine and then beat up the store’s proprietor (Oberlin paid over $39 million for that unwise defense). Now, as I’ve written about twice, Hamline has gained the spotlight by firing an instructor who showed two pictures of Muhammed in an art class, one showing his face and the other his body with a veiled face. And the instructor, whom the NYT names below as Erika López Prater, warned the students before class about this so they didn’t have to come if they didn’t want to. But trigger warnings apparently don’t eliminate offense.

Further, as I mentioned before and as Kenan Malik notes below, it’s only a recent and more conservative strain of Islam that considers it blasphemous to show the Prophet or his face, so there’s a whole panoply of Islamic art showing Muhammad’s visage, something that art history professor Christiane Gruber, who specializes in Islamic art, pointed out while defending López Prater in New Lines Magazine. That didn’t matter, either.

Nevertheless, and even though the teacher apologized, the college President, quoted above, didn’t renew the instructor’s contract. Hamline and its administration are holding firm, even though FIRE has now reported the school to its accreditation agency and the school has been condemned by PEN America. Can a lawsuit be far behind?

Remember, you read it here first, and only now does the New York Times cover the story. Be aware, though, that the NYT’s coverage may be a good sign that it’s losing its wokeness, for it took ages for the paper to get interested in the Evergreen and Oberlin cases n. You can read the NYT story below by clicking on the screenshot:

Besides naming the victim as Erika López Prater, a name now all over the Internet, the paper gives a few facts I didn’t know (don’t expect a small website to have the investigating capacity of a huge newspaper!). Here are a few tidbits:

Officials told Dr. López Prater that her services next semester were no longer needed. In emails to students and faculty, they said that the incident was clearly Islamophobic. Hamline’s president, Fayneese S. Miller, co-signed an email that said respect for the Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.” At a town hall, an invited Muslim speaker compared showing the images to teaching that Hitler was good.

Remember: an invited speaker, clearly brought in to support the accusation of blasphemy. The President’s statement is beyond the pale.

This I’ve said before:

The painting shown in Dr. López Prater’s class is in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, “A Compendium of Chronicles,” written during the 14th century by Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318).

Shown regularly in art history classes, the painting shows a winged and crowned Angel Gabriel pointing at the Prophet Muhammad and delivering to him the first Quranic revelation. Muslims believe that the Quran comprises the words of Allah dictated to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.

Note: earlier I said that the NYT didn’t show the picture at issue. I see now that it does, though you have to click on a dot to see it. (I missed that.) I’ve put the one that caused all the trouble below.

Here it is: the face that launched a thousand kvetches. You can see the picture and its painter here as well. It’s from the fourteenth century:

More from the NYT:

Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, said he regularly shows images of the Prophet Muhammad in class and without Dr. López Prater’s opt-out mechanisms. He explains to his students that these images were works of devotion created by pious artists at the behest of devout rulers.

“That’s the part I want my students to grapple with,” Dr. Safi said. “How does something that comes from the very middle of the tradition end up being received later on as something marginal or forbidden?”

I wonder if Safi is now in someone’s gunsights. More from the paper:

Dr. López Prater, who had only begun teaching at Hamline in the fall, said she felt like a bucket of ice water had been dumped over her head, but the shock soon gave way to “blistering anger at being characterized in those terms by somebody who I have never even met or spoken with.” She reached out to Dr. Gruber, who ended up writing the essay and starting the petition.

And get a load of this forum set up by the University to justify their heinous actions. (Aram Wedatalla, a student, complained about the picture-showing in the student paper and also filed a complaint with Hamline’s admnistration.)

At the Dec. 8 forum, which was attended by several dozen students, faculty and administrators, Ms. Wedatalla described, often through tears, how she felt seeing the image.

“Who do I call at 8 a.m.,” she asked, when “you see someone disrespecting and offending your religion?”

Other Muslim students on the panel, all Black women, also spoke tearfully about struggling to fit in at Hamline. Students of color in recent years had protested what they called racist incidents; the university, they said, paid lip service to diversity and did not support students with institutional resources.

The main speaker was Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group.

The instructor’s actions, he said, hurt Muslim students and students of color and had “absolutely no benefit.”

“If this institution wants to value those students,” he added, “it cannot have incidents like this happen. If somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library.”

The man is a peabrain who has no notion of academic freedom, nor does he recognize that it’s only fundamentalist Muslims who have the see-no-face policy.

Here’s one more bit describing how at least one Hamline professor spoke up against the lunacy, but was shusshed by the administration:

Mark Berkson, a religion professor at Hamline, raised his hand.

“When you say ‘trust Muslims on Islamophobia,’” Dr. Berkson asked, “what does one do when the Islamic community itself is divided on an issue? Because there are many Muslim scholars and experts and art historians who do not believe that this was Islamophobic.”

Mr. Hussein responded that there were marginal and extremist voices on any issue. “You can teach a whole class about why Hitler was good,” Mr. Hussein said.

During the exchange, Ms. Baker, the department head, and Dr. Everett, the administrator, separately walked up to the religion professor, put their hands on his shoulders and said this was not the time to raise these concerns, Dr. Berkson said in an interview.

But Dr. Berkson, who said he strongly supported campus diversity, said that he felt compelled to speak up.

“We were being asked to accept, without questioning, that what our colleague did — teaching an Islamic art masterpiece in a class on art history after having given multiple warnings — was somehow equivalent to mosque vandalism and violence against Muslims and hate speech,” Dr. Berkson said. “That is what I could not stand.”

Good for Berkson, a voice of sanity in the miasma of cowardice that is Hamline University. The bolding above is mine, showing again that Hamline’s administration DOES NOT WANT A DEBATE. They want others to confirm that they did the right thing by firing López Prater. (The good news is that she says she has other job offers.)

The journalist Kenan Malik, trained in biology as well as the history of science, and now a writer who’s devoted to free speech, has an eloquent piece in the Guardian defending López-Prater’s right to show Muhammad’s face. (He doesn’t name her.) You can read it for free by clicking the headline.

It’s full of nice pull quotes; I’ll give just three. Professor Berkson shows up again (note that the student paper removed his published letter, though you can see the link below):

David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice-president of inclusive excellence, condemned the classroom exercise as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic”. A letter written by Mark Berkson, chair of the department of religion, defending the instructor and providing historical and religious context for her actions, was published on the website of The Oracle, the university’s student newspaper, and then taken down because it “caused harm”. The instructor was “released” from further teaching duties.

What is striking about the Hamline incident, though, is that the image at the heart of the row cannot even in the most elastic of definitions be described as Islamophobic. It is an artistic treasure that exalts Islam and has long been cherished by Muslims.

. . . Yet, to show it is now condemned as Islamophobic because… a student says so. Even to question that claim is to cause “harm”. As Berkson asked in another (unpublished) letter he sent to The Oracle, after his first had been removed: “Are you saying that disagreement with an argument is a form of ‘harm’?”

That is precisely what the university is saying. “Respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” wrote Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, and Everett in a letter to staff and students. In what way was showing the painting “disrespecting” Muslims? Those who did not wish to view it did not have to. But others, including Muslims who desired to view the image, had every right to engage with a discussion of Islamic history.

Universities should defend all students’ right to practise their faith. They should not allow that faith to dictate the curriculum. That is to introduce blasphemy taboos into the classroom.

I think the mantra “disagreement with an argument is a form of ‘harm'” should become the official slogan of the woke. It’s the most concise characterization of the illiberal Left that I’ve seen.

And Malik’s take on the diversity angle of this issue (bolding is mine):

Too many people today demand that we respect the diversity of society, but fail to see the diversity of minority communities in those societies. As a result, progressive voices often get dismissed as not being authentic, while the most conservative figures become celebrated as the true embodiment of their communities.

Here, liberal “anti-racism” meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For bigots, all Muslims are reactionary and their values incompatible with those of liberal societies. For too many liberals, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim; that to be Muslim is to find the Danish cartoons offensive and the depiction of Muhammed “harmful”. Both bigots and liberals erase the richness and variety of Muslim communities.

The Hamline controversy shows how the concepts of diversity and tolerance have become turned on their head. Diversity used to mean the creation of a space for dissent and disagreement and tolerance the willingness to live with things that one might find offensive or distasteful. Now, diversity too often describes a space in which dissent and disagreement have to be expunged in the name of “respect” and tolerance requires one to refrain from saying or doing things that might be deemed offensive. It is time we re-grasped both diversity and tolerance in their original sense.

I fear it’s too late, as we’re educating students to be both politically correct and authoritarian, and they will grow up to run America (and perhaps England). It will be decades, I fear, before society comes back to its senses. But by that time I’ll be one with the clay.

39 thoughts on “The NYT finally writes about the Hamline University/Muhammad story, and Kenan Malik offers his take

    1. The Guardian (Kenan Malik’s article) did not contain any illustration. Since the Danish cartoons (17 years ago now), no mainstream newspaper or TV station in the UK has carried a depiction of Mohammed.

      Indeed, our media are so unwilling to offend the sensibilities of the more regressive and authoritarian Muslims that even likening a burka-wearing woman to a “letterbox” provokes outrage.

  1. “The man is a peabrain who has no notion of academic freedom, . . . .”
    Ah, the term always reminds me of a fraternity brother, who was wont to say: ‘He’s got the brain of a pea–not the SIZE of a pea.’

  2. I find the artwork in question by Rashid-al-Din to be irresistibly fascinating, most particularly in the depiction of the Angel Gabriel. Look at the angel’s youthful countenance, crown (no halo?), long hair, dress, sandals, and those amazing wings attached to his arms! This inspires me to learn more about angelography from ancient Sumerian times to the present.

  3. Per Wikipedia: “The university is composed of the College of Liberal Arts, School of Education, School of Business, and the Creative Writing Programs. Hamline is a community of 2,117 undergraduate students and 1,668 graduate students.”

    So, a teeny tiny little school. And they only graduate 63% of the undergrads. So not exactly an academic powerhouse. Seems like a nice place rack up student loans to go to chill out for four years (or more) and learn some social justicing.

    Still concerning though, as this may be a harbinger to come at more rigorous institutions…

    1. “And they only graduate 63% of the undergrads. So not exactly an academic powerhouse.”

      Whether it’s this or any other college or university, don’t students have some say in whether they graduate? If I didn’t sufficiently do the work or stay in school, how is that someone else’s fault? Some students don’t know why they’re there in the first place. And how expensive is college? Some drop out due to the cost.

      1. A low graduation rate means a mismatch between the requirements of a degree and the ability/discipline of the student, and/or issues in financing the degree.

        A very low graduation rate could mean that the institution is extremely difficult academically…the intellectual equivalent of the US Navy Seals. Or it could mean a degree institution that will take anyone with a pulse as long as their check clears.

        Some facts of the matter may help answer this question:

        The average SAT score for Hamline is 1170 (out of 1600). For comparison, the average SAT scores for Stanford, MIT, and the University of Michigan are 1505, 1535, and 1435, respectively.

        Hamline accepts about 76% of its students…Stanford, MIT and UofM are about 4%, 4%, and 20%, respectively.

        Finally, graduation rates. Hamline is 63%…Stanford, MIT and UofM are 94%, 94%, and 92%, respectively.

        So it appears that elite institutions are much more selective, admit students that are more prepared for college work (in addition to high SAT or ACT scores, you need to have a good grade average), and unsurprisingly have very high graduation rates despite the difficulty of the curriculum.

        In contrast, Hamline has much looser acceptance standards, admits on average much more intellectually pedestrian or underprepared students (at least as evidenced by aptitude test scores), and graduates them at much lower rates. So while it is not necessarily the institution’s “fault” for low graduation rates, it is likely that many of these Hamline students do not have the aptitude for college work, and yet are admitted anyway as they are seen as a source of revenue.

        Again, as long as your check clears, we can find a way to get you into Hamline.

  4. Am I the only one who, upon reading:

    “Who do I call at 8 a.m.,” she asked, when “you see someone disrespecting and offending your religion?”

    Wants to reply, “May I recommend Ghostbusters? I think that’s about your speed.”

    1. Nice one, Robert.

      “Other Muslim students on the panel, all Black women . . .” got me thinking. When we think of Muslims generically we think of the Middle East, Palestinians, Iraqis, maybe Pakistan and Muslim India depending. When we think of Black Muslims we think of native-born 4-generation Black people with the slavery legacy who have affected Muslim or vague “African” identities for social or political purposes but who sound like ordinary Americans and are assumed to be not particularly devout.

      But is this phenomenon something new: black people born into recently immigrated devout Muslim families who are not and never were assimilated into American culture and can’t fall back on the excuse of American slavery? Who are black but not Black?
      Is the Somali Muslim phenomenon different, because also black, from Muslims from Turkey to Indonesia? Is their fundamentalism more virulent because it has a uniquely homogenous racial dimension, even though nothing to do with slavery, that generic Muslims do not share?

      I think there is something worrisome going on here that stereotyping them as Muslims may underestimate.

      For disclosure I should say that Canada and Somalia have some bad blood between us. We sent some paratroopers there in 1993 as UN peacekeepers. A rogue element in the regiment captured one of the many young thieves that plagued the mission and beat him to death. The regiment was disbanded out of the enquiry that followed. Even though Somali refugees flocked to Canada subsequently, there is a sense that neither of us trust each other very far.

    2. When I read that it definitely brought to mind some replies, none of which were as polite as yours. Or as funny!

      I’ve got nothing but scorn for this student’s plaint. It is f!@#*&g pathetic.

      A good response at a level the student might understand is a line from the intro of the song Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs by Beck, “Why don’t you call your mommy?” Must be said just like Beck said it.

  5. This taboo against depictions of Mohammed now seems to me to be revealed (to me anyway, something I hadn’t realized before) as similar to the objections by some Protestant sects of the religious art that often characterizes Catholicism and other branches of Christianity. Would it be considered valid to punish someone for showing a photo of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because it is “idolatrous” and thus “blasphemous” in the eyes of certain hypersensitive and entitled Protestant individuals?

    1. Yes, it would: Protestant iconoclasm was widespread during the reformation. Hamline Univ., by the way, is an old Methodist college (named after Bishop Hamline). Such institutions, spread all across the midwest in the 19th century, were virulently anti-Catholic. Some Methodist churches even deplored having an organ in the loft: all music was to be congregational hymn-singing, the only book was of course the bible. Today, such churches and their schools are dying, and Hamline’s behavior epitomizes a desperate ‘new reformation’ to save themselves.

  6. This puts me in mind of the controversy around Meg Smaker’s documentary, “Jihad Rehab,” or when CAIR tried to cancel Bari Weiss and Ayan Hirsi Ali at the Commonwealth Club, or Rushdie etc…The desire to silence or destroy those who don’t respect Islam the way “they should” is a theme we are gonna see more and more of, I expect.

  7. I didn’t include it in my list of events below the line of today’s Hili, but on this day in 2015, “the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris two days earlier are both killed after a hostage situation; a second hostage situation, related to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, occurs at a Jewish market in Vincennes”.

    The spreading of the nonsense that any depiction of Mohammed is evil and Islamophobic comes with serious consequences and Hamline should be ashamed of its actions.

  8. Berkson: “There are many Muslim scholars and experts and art historians who do not believe that this was Islamophobic.”

    Hussein (from CAIR): Calls such Muslims “marginal and extremist voices”, and then compares López Prater to nazi sympathizers. “You can teach a whole class about why Hitler was good.”

    But Berkson is the guy being shushed by Hamline administrators.

    1. And the irony is that Hussein is too dim to realize he’s the real extremist. What else do you call someone who believes that images of Muhammed cannot be shown under ANY circumstances? Or someone who desires to fire teachers for blasphemy?
      As the excellent Kenan Malik pointed out, this is another case of woke dolts letting a religion be represented by its most reactionary representatives.

  9. Other Muslim students on the panel, all Black women, also spoke tearfully about struggling to fit in at Hamline. Students of color in recent years had protested what they called racist incidents; the university, they said, paid lip service to diversity and did not support students with institutional resources.

    The often unacknowledged victims of what we’re calling “woke” ideology are the perpetrators themselves. It’s probably safe to guess that Hamline University is not a hotbed of racism and religious bigotry and these young black Muslim women haven’t been dealing with white supremacists cruelly blocking their access to academic success. But it’s also quite likely that the tears, struggles, and emotional damage of believing they’ve been journeying through a gauntlet of soul-crippling micro aggressions are real enough. The self-generated sense of violation was carefully taught and nurtured into their minds by an intense, toxic system of ideas and ideals which also demonstrated to them what sort of things should trigger it.

    So a too-powerful ideology (which might but needn’t be a religion) does what it always does: takes a perfectly ordinary, reasonable person of good will and turns them into a weak, paranoid, wounded sufferer. “Who do we call at 8 AM?” Ffs. This reaction and behavior was modeled by respected peers, reinforced by lessons. It doesn’t just naturally suggest itself.

    The proud parents of these promising young black women probably imagined them going to university and coming out stronger and wiser, tough enough to ignore slights and setbacks on the journey to their dreams. The women may have imagined it themselves. Instead, they’re shaking and bitter and defeated over … nothing. And they’ve become unwary bullies because of it. What a horrible waste of potential.

  10. I realize that this is very marginally tangential to this discussion, but when did “phobic” come to mean something other than “fear of”? I mean, failure to observe a particular religion’s beliefs doesn’t mean one is afraid of that religion and its followers.

    I know, I know, language changes.

    1. Which is especially ironic because they want us to be afraid of them. And also afraid of doing anything to reinforce a robust civil secular rule of law to protect us from them.

  11. There’s a pretty strong possibility that Muhammad never even existed, which makes the dispute at Hamline even more ludicrous. But, this is what religion brings us: false beliefs.

  12. failure to observe a particular religion’s beliefs doesn’t mean one is afraid of that religion and its followers.

    It could be quite the opposite.

  13. University administrators need to grow a spine and harden the f*ck up. Hamline looks terrible after this. So does the complainant, who looks pathetic here. She’s going to need some good luck to land a job when they google her name and see how completely unprepared she is for the real world.

    1. It seems if this student is so easily offended she might feel more comfortable attending university in Iran or Afghanistan. The instructor apparently gave ample warning of the content of what I presume is an elective class yet this student VOLUNTARILY choose to look at the image and then complain. It’s not like someone held her down and force-fed her pork. So I guess for her this beautiful, historic piece of art created by a follower of Islam should be destroyed. Just who is the “Islamophobe” here?

  14. “Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, said he regularly shows images of the Prophet Muhammad in class and without Dr. López Prater’s opt-out mechanisms.”

    I absolutely think Dr. López Prater was simply trying to be a decent human being, respectful of other people, and to do the right thing here, but I wonder if all the elaborate “trigger warnings” may have backfired. That they may have “primed” the class to expect something shocking and “harmful”, where a matter-of-fact display of the picture (along with a note of its origins: “This is an illustration from Jami’ al-tawarikh, written by the Muslim statesman Rashid al-Din Hamadani in the 14th century CE”) might have NOT resulted in such an absurd overreaction.

    Of course Professor Safi is teaching different sets of students in a different place. And there may be some identity politics going on here as well: Someone named “Omid Safi” may be able to do something that someone named “Erika López Prater” may not be able to get away with. (And if so, that’s deplorable; a fundamental ideal of liberalism is to judge every person on their actions and their individual merits, not on the color of their skin, or their perceived ethnicity or religion.)

  15. These incidents seem about control. While the student had “control” of her actions and could have left the classroom, that wasn’t what she wanted. She wants to control the rest of society – to keep everyone from displaying images of Mo. Who gave her that right? Just asking.

  16. Those Muslim students *deliberately* viewed images of the Prophet Mohammad. I imagine their families and Imams are furious.

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