Editor’s note: For more background on what happened at Hamline University, see here.
(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, today released an official, nationwide position statement in response to a controversy at Minnesota’s Hamline University involving visual representations of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) in the classroom.
“Although CAIR’s national headquarters normally does not comment on local issues that arise in states with one of our state chapters, we must sometimes speak up to clarify where our entire organization stands on issues of national concern,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. “This is one of those times.”
In its statement, CAIR reaffirmed its longstanding policy of discouraging the display of images of the Prophet while also noting that the academic study of ancient paintings depicting him does not, by itself, constitute Islamophobia. CAIR also said that it has seen “no evidence” that former Hamline University professor Erika Lopez Prater had bigoted intent or engaged in Islamophobic conduct in the classroom.
READ FULL STATEMENT HERE: Official CAIR Statement on Islamophobia and Hamline University Controversy
In the statement, CAIR said in part:
“For almost thirty years, CAIR has been…exposing, countering, and preventing incidents of Islamophobia. This pervasive form of bigotry harms countless people here in America and around the world. We never hesitate to call out Islamophobia, but we never use the word Islamophobia lightly. It is not a catch-all term for anything that we find insensitive, offensive or immoral. To determine what constitutes an act of anti-Muslim bigotry or discrimination, we always consider intent, actions and circumstances…”
“Although we strongly discourage showing visual depictions of the Prophet, we recognize that professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense. Based on what we know up to this point, we see no evidence that Professor Erika López Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets our definition of Islamophobia…
“Academics should not be condemned as bigots without evidence or lose their positions without justification.”
CAIR also expressed support for Muslim students at Hamline University and encouraged schools to consider the perspective of students who argue that displaying depictions of Prophet in the classroom is harmful and also unnecessary, given they represent a small and late-stage part of the vast Muslim art history.
CAIR encouraged school officials, academics, students and others involved in the situation at the local and national level to re-examine the controversy with open minds, and pledged to do what it can to help resolve the conflict.
[NOTE: CAIR noted that its statement today represents the sole official and authorized position of the organization. Any past comments which contradict the statement do not represent CAIR’s position.]
Islamic artwork and iconography dating back to early Muslim history center largely around calligraphy and geometric designs because of ancient teachings that limited, discouraged or outright forbade the drawing of living beings, especially Prophets and other figures whose images might be subjected to idolatry. No images of the Prophet were drawn during or anywhere near his lifetime.
Many Muslims therefore consider visual depictions of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) sacrilegious and offensive. However, Muslim artists in some regions of the world did draw paintings depicting the Prophet hundreds of years after his passing, and some Muslims use certain images as part of their religious practices.
Like many other American Muslim institutions, CAIR has condemned anti-Muslim extremists who create or display images of the Prophet to cause offense. CAIR and others have also respectfully discouraged mainstream institutions from showing images of him meant to be positive.
In 1997, sixteen major American Muslim groups, including CAIR, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to respect Islamic teachings and the sentiments of most Muslims by altering or removing a frieze that depicted the Prophet in an attempt to honor him as a “great lawgiver.”
However, Muslim groups did not describe the Court as Islamophobic because its intent was not bigoted.