A Minnesota University professor - who was fired and deemed 'undeniably Islamophobic' after showing students an image of the Prophet Muhammad - has broken her silence.
Professor Erika Lopez Prater, 42, was fired by the Hamline University after students complained following an online class about Islamic art in October in which she displayed a 14th-century depiction of the angel Gabriel delivering the Prophet's first revelation.
The 42-year-old said she had given advance notice in the course syllabus, as well as a trigger warning during the class, before showing the image and no students had contacted her to raise concerns – adding that she 'didn't mean to offend anyone.'
But later, Aram Wedatalla, 23, head of Hamline's Muslim Student Association, claimed the image had 'blindsided' her - resulting in school officials deciding not to renew Lopez Prater's contract.
Many practicing Muslims believe they should not look at pictures of the Prophet Muhammad as they it could lead to worshipping an image.
Reading a copy of the syllabus to MPR News, Lopez Prater said a warning was clearly made to incoming students of her class - conscious that in some branches of Islam it is blasphemous to look at a picture of the prophet.
'This course will introduce students to several religious traditions and the visual cultures they have produced historically,' she read.
'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.'
Lopez Prater said no student contacted her with concerns and said she felt it was important to include the artwork, even if it may be controversial for some who follow the faith.
She said she also gave students two minutes to look away from the screen or log out before she projected the image during her class.
'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 to the outlet.
Lopez Prater added that the administration never reached out to her to discuss her side and then sent a campus-wide email calling her actions Islamophobic.
The incident raised discussions about the fate of academic freedom and whether the professor's actions were hateful.
In a press conference held on Wednesday at the Minneapolis headquarters of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) Wedatalla fought back tears as she spoke of the incident.
'I'm 23 years old. I have never once seen an image of the prophet,' she said in the conference streamed live on CAIR-MN's Facebook page, adding that she felt marginalized.
'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.'
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 she called the violation 'an act of Islamophobia.'
'In reality, a trigger warning is an indication that you are going to do harm,' he said, adding that it doesn't matter that the instructor warned students before showing the image.
However, Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton College whose opinion piece about the incident was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, said: 'I do not see it as Islamophobic.
'Islamophobic is about malintent towards Muslims, or something that is symbolic to Muslims. There is no malintent here,' she added.
Khalid said Hamline should have responded to 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.
CAIR-MN officials are planning a series of community engagement events to further discuss the incident and why it was harmful.
Lopez Prater said she is also participating in a variety of forums on academic freedom.
When asked by MPR News whether she would return to Hamline if offered her job back, the 42-year-old educator said: 'Not at this time.' She added that she has hired counsel and is exploring legal actions against the school.
Lopez Prater plans to teach at Macalester College in the spring.
On Wednesday, the president of Hamline University, Fayneese Miller, defended her decision not to renew Lopez Prater's contract following the controversy.
Miller said she, faculty members and a student had received death threats following the dismissal and insisted Hamline respected freedom of speech.
In a statement she wrote that their overriding priority is to protect students.
'Prioritizing the well-being of our students does not in any way negate or minimize the rights and privileges assured by academic freedom,' she wrote.
'Academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior.'
Miller quoted the American Federation of Teachers as 'correctly' stating that 'academic freedom and its attendant rights do not mean that 'anything goes'.
Miller added: 'It notes that 'faculty must act professionally in their scholarly research, their teaching, and their interactions with students and... ensure this through policies and procedures that safeguard both students and the academic integrity of the institutions and disciplines.'
She asked: 'Does your defense of academic freedom infringe upon the rights of students in violation of the very principles you defend?'
Miller also issued a harsh rebuttal of her critics, calling them misguided and ill-informed.
'It is far easier to criticize, from the security of our computer screens, than it is to have to make the hard decisions that serve the interests of the entire campus community,' she wrote.
'What disappoints me the most is that little has been said regarding the needs and concerns of our students that all members of our community hold in trust. I hope this changes.'
Miller concluded: 'I also note that Hamline is an independent university still closely affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and its foundational principles inscribed in the oft-repeated words on our campus of John Wesley: "To do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."
'We at Hamline live by these words.
'To do all the good you can means, in part, minimizing harm.
'That is what has informed our decisions thus far and will continue to inform them in the future.
'We hope you understand and respect the values guiding our efforts.'
Earlier this week it emerged Hamline could lose its accreditation after a formal complaint was filed against it for firing Lopez Prater.
An attorney sent the complaint to the Higher Learning Commission saying the liberal college was 'failing to protect the academic freedom.'
Wedatalla told the school's newspaper in October, following the online class: '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.'
After the online lesson, Wedatalla stuck around to speak with Lopez Prater.
The conversation prompted the professor to send an email to her department head, Allison Baker, to give her a heads up about the situation.
Baker, the chair of the digital and studio art department, responded by saying: 'It sounded like you did everything right.'
Deangela Huddleston, a Hamline senior and Muslim Student Association member, said of the incident: 'Hamline teaches us it doesn't matter the intent, the impact is what matters.'
A spokesperson for Hamline said at the time of Lopez Prater's dismissal that she 'received an appointment letter for the fall semester and taught the course until the end of the term'.