Hamline student, former instructor at center of debate over religion, academic freedom speak out

A person speaks during a news conference
Aram Wedatalla, a Hamline University senior, speaks to reporters at the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Minneapolis on Wednesday. Wedatalla was one of several students in a world art class when the lecturer showed a picture of the Prophet Muhammad, a decision Wedatalla, 23, considered Islamophobic. She reported it to the administration. That led to Hamline's decision not to renew the lecturer and opened a national debate around free speech and religious belief.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Two people at the center of the controversy at Hamline University over academic freedom that has gained international attention spoke Wednesday about how the incident has impacted their lives.

Aram Wedatalla, who is the head of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association, said she was blindsided by an image of the Prophet Muhammad presented in her World Art class at Hamline last fall. 

“I’m 23 years old. I have never once seen an image of the Prophet,” said Wedatalla fighting back tears during a press conference held Wednesday at the Minneapolis headquarters of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN). 

A person speaks during a news conference
Aram Wedatalla, a Hamline senior and the president of Muslim Student Association (MSA) speaks during a news conference at the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

CAIR-MN executive director Jaylani Hussein said most Muslims around the world oppose the public display of images of the Prophet Muhammad. To show the image of the Prophet, said Hussein, is deeply offensive. And he called that violation of the prohibition an act of Islamophobia.  And he said it doesn’t matter that the instructor warned students before she showed the image.

“In reality a trigger warning is an indication that you are going to do harm,” he said.

Wedatalla complained to school officials who decided to not renew then adjunct professor Erika López Prater’s contract.

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A class syllabus
Prof. López Prater's class syllabus.
Courtesy image

López Prater said she didn’t mean to offend anyone. And she included advanced notice in the course syllabus. 

“This course will introduce students to several religious traditions and the visual cultures they have produced historically,” reads a copy of the syllabus López Prater provided to MPR News. 

“This includes showing and discussing both representational and non-representational depictions of holy figures (for example, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha). If you have any questions or concerns about either missing class for a religious observance or the visual content that will be presented, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

No student contacted her with concerns, she said.

López Prater said she felt it was important to include artwork that represents Islam, even if it would be controversial for many adherents of the faith.

“You can’t erase history and I think it is actually important that we teach and demonstrate the internal diversity within the history of Islam which is a very, in my opinion, underrepresented and misunderstood religion,” she said.

Hamline student, former instructor at center of debate over religion, academic freedom speak out

López Prater said the administration never reached out to her to discuss her side and then sent a campus-wide email calling her actions Islamophobic. 

The incident has raised discussions about the fate of academic freedom and over whether the professor’s actions were hateful.  

“I do not see it as Islamophobic,” said Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton College whose opinion piece about the incident was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  “Islamophobic is about malintent towards Muslims, or something that is symbolic to Muslims. There is no malintent here.”

Khalid added that Hamline should have responded to Aram Wedatalla’s complaint differently. 

“Hamline University should have said 'well we understand you are offended. Your offense is a great moment to learn more about the Islamic tradition because clearly, you are coming from a very particular point of view,’” she said.

Wedatalla said, whether intended or not, the classroom display caused her pain.

“It just breaks my heart that I have to stand here to tell people that something is Islamophobic and something actually hurts all of us, not only me,” she said.  

CAIR-MN officials say they will have a series of community engagement events to further discuss the incident and why it was harmful. López Prater says she is also participating in a variety of forums on academic freedom.

When asked if she would return to Hamline if they offered her another job, she said not at this time. And that she has hired legal counsel and is exploring legal actions. López Prater plans to teach at Macalester College in the spring.

Hamline has not responded to requests for comment or for information from MPR News.

Erika López Prater denied the request to provide a photo.

Correction (Jan. 12, 2023): We incorrectly identified a speaker in a photo caption. This has been fixed.