Freedom Of Speech vs Religious Discrimination

Muhammad prohibiting intercalation; 17th century Ottoman copy of an early 14th century (Ilkhanate period) manuscript of Northwestern Iran or northern Iraq (the “Edinburgh codex”). Illustration of Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī‘s al-Âthâr al-bâqiyah ( الآثار الباقية ; “The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries”)

The concept of Freedom of Speech is well understood. Religious Discrimination is also something we should aspire to avoid, for example rejecting and being hostile towards people because they are Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, etc…

What happens when these conflict, how do you square that circle?

The specific example I have in mind concerns a recent “Image of Muhammad” incident that resulted in somebody getting fired.

First, let’s set the stage by giving you a bit of background.

Images of Muhammad

For many Muslims a picture of Muhammad is deemed to be deeply offensive.

While the Quran itself does not explicitly ban images of Muhammad, within some of the associated writings, the hadiths, there are explicit prohibitions on visual images of Muhammad. It’s not new and does have a long history.

For a detailed description of it all see the Wikipedia article that covers the topic in great detail.

Not all Muslims are personally offended, some are truly not bothered, but many do become deeply offended by depictions of Muhammad. To be clear, Islam is not one unified group, but rather, like the term Christian, the word “Muslim” is an umbrella term that encapsulates a vast diversity of beliefs many of which conflict and are different. In general terms what is true is that no having imagery of Muhammed is mainstream.

But what about “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”

You might, or perhaps might not, remember the “Everybody draw Mohammed day” that popped up in about 2010. So where does that fit in?

It was basically a response to threats of violence and also a protest against censorship.

Was this Islamaphobic, and discrimination against Muslims?


It was not there to attack Muslims for simply being Muslim, nor did it exist to just offend for the sake of offending, but instead was designed as a public stance against extreme threats of violence and religious oppression. When some faced credible threats of violence, it became and “I’m Spartacus” moment.

It attracted a lot of support because it was very obviously a stance for freedom of speech and the need to stand against religious violence and intimidation.

However, there is also no avoiding the fact that there were, and still are, also people who are motivated by pure xenophobia to utilise images of Muhammed as a way to deliberately offend for its own sake, not because they are taking a stance for freedom of speech, but because they are prejudiced.

This posting however is not about that specific event, but instead is about what has just happened. All this was just background.

Let’s jump into what happened.

The Incident at Hamline University

Hamline University is a very small liberal arts college located in St Paul, Minnesota.

That is where adjunct professor Erika López Prater was teaching an art history course. The class syllabus explicitly explained that the course would contain images of religious figures including Mohammad and that if any students had any concerns to reach out. Nobody did.

For the class that would cover this historical art depictions of Mohammad she did tell the class that this was coming up and if anybody was deeply concerned they could opt out – Again, nobody did.

She then showed an image of a 14th-century painting that depicted the prophet Muhammad during the class.

One Muslim student lodged an official complaint – net impact, Erika López Prater was fired and also the Council on American-Islamic Relations backed the student as follows …

CAIR, however, has come to the Muslim student’s defense. The organization lauded the university’s response, particularly that of its president, Fayneese Miller. Jaylani Hussein, CAIR Minnesota’s executive director, repeatedly congratulated Miller on Wednesday (Jan. 11) for working to create a more inclusive, safe and welcoming environment for Muslim students at the university.

If you are thinking “WTF!” then yes, that’s the right answer.

The professor was teaching an art history class, and as part of that covered artistic depictions of Mohammed (see picture at top of this posting). She warned the students this was coming and also gave them an opt out. The student refused to opt out and instead chose to remain the the class and sat waiting and ready to be offended.

This is utterly egregious. The fact the the administration at the university refused to back her but instead fired her is also egregious.

But Wait …

After a lot of bad press, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has had a serious re-think about it all and have totally changed their position. This statement went out on Jan 13 …

In essence, that are quite open about the incident and make the following points …

  • There is no no evidence that the former @HamlineU professor acted with bigoted intent or engaged in Islamophobia when she analyzed a medieval painting depicting Prophet Muhammad that was drawn hundreds of years after his passing by a Muslim artist.
  • All they ask is this … “Any schools that ultimately choose to allow the display of such images for academic purposes should give students ample warning, a chance to discuss their concerns, and reasonable religious accommodations, as the professor at Hamline University reportedly attempted to do

Hamline University are also now vigorously covering their Ass

Their official statement, also issued Jan 13, claims

The adjunct taught the class to the end of the term, when she, like all other faculty, completed the term requirements, and posted her grades. The decision not to offer her another class was made at the unit level and in no way reflects on her ability to adequately teach the class.

In other words, “Oh gosh no, she was not fired, we simply opted to not renew her contract” can be read as “Yep, we fired her, but when the shit hit the fan we now have to play word games to pretend we did not“. For confirmation that my interpretation is the correct one, just read their entire statement which rambles on about professional conduct in the context of society at large. Why include all that word soup if it was a totally none event?


Religious people hold deeply held views about specific things.

Society should, and generally does, accommodate them but not in a manner that imposes religious constraints upon others. In this case that included multiple warnings and opt-outs.

The student refused to take the opt out, it was not forced.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations agrees that what happened was fine and that nobody should have been fired and also that the fired professor should get her job back.

The collage screwed up and now reaps a hell of a lot of bad PR and is frantically trying to row that back.

Meanwhile The University of Minnesota’s art history department has been rather critical of what Hamline did and have issued a formal statement condemning them …

The tenure-stream faculty of the Department of Art History at the University of Minnesota writes to address the recent non-renewal of adjunct instructor, Dr. Erika López Prater, from her term appointment at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. As has been widely reported, and especially well documented in a New York Times article of January 8, 2023, Dr. López Prater showed a 14th-century manuscript painting depicting the Prophet Mohammad in her art history survey course, prompting student complaint and the subsequent cancellation of Dr. López Prater’s spring semester course. This happened without the due process of formal investigation, without an opportunity for Dr. López Prater to respond to the administration’s ill-informed and unfounded accusations, and without good-faith institutional investment in open dialogue or the restorative practices of communication and relational repair. The blame for the mishandling falls entirely to Hamline’s administration.

In response to Dr. López Prater’s non-renewal, we speak strongly against Hamline’s intertwined attacks on academic freedom, on the integrity and dedication of faculty (especially those vulnerable to dismissal), and on the related enterprises of knowledge dissemination and debate. We strongly urge Hamline’s administrative leadership to examine critically its approach to this instance and its broader policies and procedures, not only regarding student complaints and controversies, but also with respect to hiring, training, setting expectations for, and listening to adjunct faculty. 

One can be hope they will listen.

Images and objects are unique sources of cultural information, the objective of such classes is to use them to teach. Cutting such courses is censorship.

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