On January 13, 2023, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the leading advocacy group for the Muslim community in the United States, issued the following statement weighing on the Islamophobia debate following the presentation of an Islamic artwork depicting the Prophet Mohammad in a classroom lesson at Minnesota’s Hamline University:
In recent days, our team at the Council on American Islamic Relations has been asked to share our perspective on the recent controversy at Hamline University. As the national headquarters of our civil rights and advocacy organization, we normally do not comment on local issues that arise in states with an existing CAIR chapter. However, we must sometimes speak up to clarify where our entire organization stands on local issues with national implications.
This is one of those times.
We are publishing this statement in order to explain how CAIR identifies Islamophobia and how we respond to the display of visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him. This statement represents the sole official position of CAIR. Any past comments that do not align with this statement do not reflect our organization’s stance.
We want to first acknowledge Muslim students at Hamline University. We recognize how much the classroom incident, the discourse around it, and separate issues at Hamline University have concerned and impacted them. We fully support their right to be heard and we condemn the hateful abuse that has been directed at them online during this controversy.
Young Muslims in America have grown up through two decades of open bigotry: watching their faith and their community come under attack in politics, the news media, television, films, and even their daily lives. They have also seen anti-Muslim extremists use images of our beloved Prophet to denigrate him, foment hate, and spark conflict.
For almost 30 years, CAIR has been protecting American Muslims from this hate by exposing, countering and preventing incidents of Islamophobia. This pervasive form of bigotry harms countless people here in America and around the world.
Although CAIR never hesitates to call out Islamophobia, 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.
That brings us to the critical issue of whether and when showing visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him constitutes an act of Islamophobia.
Islamic artwork has a long, rich and unique history. Iconography dating back to early Muslim times centers 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. Indeed, no images of the Prophet were drawn during or anywhere near his lifetime.
To this day, many Muslims consider visual depictions of the Prophet sacrilegious. This is not a new development or an “ultraconservative” view, as some have claimed in recent days, but a longstanding and mainstream perspective based on both hadiths (reported sayings of the Prophet and scholarly rulings.
It is important to note that Muslim artists in some regions did draw reverential paintings of the Prophet in later Muslim history, and that some Muslims use certain images as part of their religious practices. Muslims are a diverse community and we respect that diversity.
CAIR has always taken a nuanced approach to depictions of the Prophet. We have forcefully condemned anti-Muslim extremists who display such images to cause offense while politely discouraging mainstream American institutions from displaying even positive images of the Prophet.
For example, we once joined over a dozen American Muslim groups in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to modify a frieze that depicted the Prophet in an attempt to honor him as a “great lawgiver.” However, we never condemned the Supreme Court as Islamophobic.
Again, intent and circumstances matter when determining whether an act is Islamophobic. This is especially true in a university setting.
Academic freedom is an important principle of the higher education system. Far too often, professors who teach inconvenient facts—from structural racism in America to the oppression of Palestinians—face censorship, condemnation and even termination. This is wrong.
Professors at colleges and universities have a duty to teach facts relevant to their areas of study. They also have the duty to exercise wisdom in determining when, whether and how to address sensitive and disputed subjects, such as visual depictions of the Prophet.
Although we strongly discourage showing visual depictions of the Prophet, 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 former Hamline University Adjunct Professor Erika López Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets our definition of Islamophobia.
Islam requires fairness and justice for all people, which is why Muslims must be fair and just when we level accusations of Islamophobia. What we find un-Islamic is not necessarily Islamophobic, and we must be careful to distinguish between those two concepts. Academics should not be condemned as bigots without evidence or lose their positions without justification.
Having said that, Islamophobia is a very real problem that can impact Muslim students throughout their academic careers. In fact, faculty members at Hamline recently acknowledged that students had complained of facing discrimination before the painting incident.
Like all students, Muslim students deserve to be heard and respected. They have the right to uphold their sincerely held religious beliefs, call out any forms of subtle or overt discrimination they experience, and express their legitimate perspective that displaying depictions of the Prophet in the classroom is unnecessary and offensive.
Schools should consider those perspectives as they determine how to best educate students in a considerate and welcoming environment. Any schools that ultimately choose to allow the display of such images for academic purposes should be aware of the harmful impact it may have on some Muslim students. Schools should give students ample warning, a chance to express their concerns, and reasonable religious accommodations, as Professor Prater at Hamline reportedly did.
As the national discussion surrounding Hamline University continues, we encourage everyone involved, including school officials, faculty members, local activists, and community leaders to reexamine the situation with open minds and dialogue with each other.
We are confident that Hamline University and other schools can find a way to respect the sincerely held religious beliefs of students, treat faculty members fairly, and protect academic freedom, all at the same time. We intend to do whatever we can to help in this process. May God guide all of us to what is best.