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Professor Amna Khalid moderates panel discussion of Islamic art controversy

On Tuesday, Jan. 17, Professor of History Amna Khalid will moderate a panel discussion about the recent controversy at Hamline University, which has drawn national press attention. Khalid will be joined by other academics, including the chair of Hamline’s religion department, to discuss “[w]hat happens when students are offended by course materials.” 

The course in question was at Hamline University, only an hour north of Carleton in the Midway area between St. Paul and Minneapolis. During an art history class at Hamline, the instructor, Adjunct Professor Erika López Prater, displayed an image of a 14th-century Persian book painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad receiving instructions from the angel Gabriel. 

The professor warned students that the image would be shown, as some Muslims believe that looking at images of Muhammad is forbidden. One or more students in the class complained to the university administration, and Hamline University dismissed the professor who showed the image three days later. 

The Hamline student newspaper, “The Oracle,” quotes Aram Wedtalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, who was in the class at the time the photo was shared. 

“I’m like, ‘this can’t be real,”’ Wedatalla told the Oracle. “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.”

The university released a statement on Dec. 9 regarding the decision to dismiss the instructor, written by University President Fayneese Miller and Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence David Everett. 

“We have learned, over many years, that knowledge can be shared in a multitude of responsible, thoughtful and respectful ways,” the letter said. “Our response to the classroom event does not disregard or minimize the importance of academic freedom. It does state that respect, decency, and appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm.”

The dismissal of the professor drew the ire of many concerned about academic freedom, including Mark Berkson, professor and chair of the religion department at Hamline. Berkson defended the professor’s decision to show the image in a letter to Hamline’s student newspaper

“I believe that, in the context of an art history classroom, showing an Islamic representation of the Prophet Muhammad, a painting that was done to honor Muhammad and depict an important historical moment, is not an example of Islamophobia,” wrote Berkson. “Labeling it this way is not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate.” 

Berkson will be joining Khalid’s panel on Tuesday, titled “What Happens When Students Are Offended by Course Materials? Teaching Islam and Islamic Art in the Age of Inclusion.” Along with Berkson and Khalid, the panel will include Ahoo Najafian, assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Macalester College, and Alexander Jabbari, assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota. 

Khalid entered the controversy on the side of the fired professor by publishing an article on her substack titled “Most of All, I am Offended as a Muslim.” Khalid aimed her criticism at Hamline’s administration. 

“In dismissing the instructor for alleged ‘Islamophobia,’ Hamline has revealed its reductive and simplistic view of Islam, Islamic societies, and Islamic art,” wrote Khalid. “In an age when administrators are eager for faculty members to decolonize their syllabi, Hamline’s position is a kind of arch-imperialism, reinforcing a monolithic image of Muslims propounded by the cult of authentic Islam.” 

The panel will take place at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in Weitz 236. 

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