Where they think solidarity is a threat

January 20, 2016

Nicole Colson reports on the case of a Wheaton College professor who is being fired after standing in solidarity with Muslims--and explains why her stance is so important.

AFTER STANDING in solidarity with Muslims against the tide of Islamophobia currently infecting so much of mainstream U.S. politics, Dr. Larycia Hawkins is now having to fight her employer, Wheaton College, just to keep her job.

The evangelical college located in Illinois said it would fire Hawkins, an associate professor of political science who has taught there for more than eight years, after she made headlines in December for wearing a hijab--the headscarf worn by some Muslim women--and spoke about standing in solidarity with Muslims during the Advent season.

After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which was followed by a tide of racism and a spike in hate crimes against Muslims, Hawkins, Wheaton's first Black female tenured professor, wrote a post on Facebook stating: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."

Initially, the school placed Hawkins on administrative leave. While claiming that the college "values a robust exchange of ideas among faculty and students on the critical issues of the day," officials said in a statement that Hawkins was placed on leave "in order to give more time to explore theological implications of her recent public statements concerning Christianity and Islam."

Dr. Larycia Hawkins speaks out at a press conference
Dr. Larycia Hawkins speaks out at a press conference

The college claimed it was not Hawkins' wearing of a hijab or expression of sympathy with Muslims that led to her being placed on leave, but rather the theological implications of her statement--which "seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College's doctrinal convictions." As a tenured professor, Hawkins is free to wear a hijab, the college claimed, but "her recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College's Statement of Faith."

That's simply not true, says Hawkins. "The post was not about theology," she told NPR. "It was about solidarity, which is a Christian principle."

MANY OF Hawkins' supporters, including several colleagues speaking out on her behalf, say that the explanation by Wheaton officials for their subsequent decision to fire Hawkins rings hollow.

In interviews, several Wheaton professors said that it wasn't any violation of the college's statement of faith that put Hawkins' job in jeopardy, but actually the school's fears about the public perception of an evangelical Christian college coming to the defense of Muslims. In other words, Wheaton is pandering to the anti-Muslim sentiment in the broader evangelical community.

In fact, according to Time magazine, Stanton Jones, the provost now leading the charge to fire Hawkins, admitted in a private e-mail to another Wheaton professor that Hawkins' comments were "innocuous," but they were causing bad public relations for the college.

"Articles are already being written in a variety of news sources, and the media are pounding on our door asking for comments about our faculty who are endorsing Islam," the provost wrote in the e-mail obtained by Time. "We are being asked to defend why we have faculty openly rejecting with (sic) the institution stands for."

Jones was writing to the other Wheaton professor, Michael Mangis, because Mangis had written on Facebook that he would "be leading my spring psychology of religion class in Muslim prayers" if Hawkins faced any trouble for her statement.

"I cannot tell you what a disaster this brief comment from you on Facebook is shaping up to be," Jones wrote in the e-mail. "Larycia Hawkins also meant something similarly innocuous, but her theological comments are being taken up as an endorsement of Islam and a clear and emphatic statement that Islam and Christianity are approximately the same."

THE IDEA that any of this could be considered a public relations "disaster" is a product of the high tide of bigotry against Muslims.

In the presidential primary campaigns, Donald Trump has called for banning Muslims from entering the U.S. and repeated the long-discredited lie that "thousands" of Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks. (As further evidence of his attempt to court evangelical Christians, Trump chose the occasion of Martin Luther King Day to deliver a speech at Liberty University--the far-right evangelical college founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell.)

Other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination aren't far behind. Ben Carson suggested that a Muslim should not be president, and Ted Cruz slandered Islam as "a theocratic and political ideology that says that [Muslims] are compelled to use violence and force to murder anyone that doesn't share their radical faith or to forcibly convert them."

Among Democrats, Barack Obama has been careful in speeches to insist that Muslims are not all responsible for terrorism. But he has played into the demonization taking place by calling on moderate Muslims to do more to curtails more "radical" forces--something that is never called for when right-wing Christian terrorists strike.

For their part, the Republican candidates are playing to their party's base, where a deep strain of anti-Muslim prejudice and far-right politics runs, especially among evangelicals.

"At least 40 percent of white evangelicals hold hardline foreign policy views, a striking figure among Americans," Damon Lynch wrote at Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog . "Compared to other religious groups, evangelicals are the country's biggest supporters of torture. For some years political scientists have been reporting that evangelical doctrine is strongly associated with militarism, meaning evangelicals believe war to be moral and that the U.S. government should be aggressive in pursuing it."

COURAGEOUSLY, LARYCIA Hawkins has stood firm in her show of solidarity with Muslims--and students, faculty and alumni of Wheaton College are rallying to her defense.

The attack on Hawkins represents a threat to the rights and job protections normally afforded to tenured professors. If Wheaton is allowed to fire Hawkins, it will be a blow against academic freedom and make it easier for colleges and universities to control the speech of professors they employ. As Hawkins explained to NPR:

It's a bigger academic freedom question than Wheaton College alone. It's actually not even just a religious institutional question. I'm not the "hijab professor"; I'm the professor that's trying to teach my students to move beyond theoretical solidarity, sitting on our laurels in the classroom, towards embodied politics, embodied solidarity. And that's just not for religionists; that's for all of us.

The American Political Science Association called on Wheaton to rescind the firing, writing in a statement to the administration, "We urge you to continue working to resolve the situation so as to leave no doubt as to the college's commitment to academic freedom, to freedom of expression and to its stated support for 'a robust exchange of ideas among faculty and students on the critical issues of the day.'"

A protest on campus on the first day of the spring semester drew several dozen students despite frigid weather, who chanted "Reinstate Doc Hawk." Hundreds of Wheaton College alumni have signed onto a statement demanding that the college reinstate Hawkins and acknowledge its error in trying to terminate her--and are threatening to "prayerfully reconsider our commitment to financially support" the college if it continues with the firing.

At a January press conference in Chicago, Hawkins stood with a crowd of students, colleagues and other supporters--including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations--to affirm her commitment to the fight for justice and her decision to stand strong in the face of Wheaton's efforts to fire her.

As Rehab said, Hawkins' message--coming in the midst of an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes across the country--"is one that is important because it goes against the currents and the waves of our time to say, 'I will stand even if alone!' But she is not going to be alone!"

Speaking of her work with the interfaith group Arise Chicago, Hawkins reaffirmed the importance of solidarity:

We are Christians and Muslims and Jews and atheists who aver that all religions believe in justice. We know that all humans are imbued with dignity. We declare that all labor--I repeat, all labor--is valuable. My labor as a professor is no more imbued with dignity than the labor of my friend Sam who makes my French Vanilla Coffee every morning when she sees me walk through the door, or the folks in the physical plant at Wheaton College, who are actually the folks without whose maintenance of facilities and grounds my teaching and student thriving would be significantly impeded if not impossible...

Solidarity with labor is not merely a cause I'm committed to--it has become the fight of my life.

Hawkins defiantly added:

Wheaton College cannot scare me into walking away from the truth that all humans, Muslims, the vulnerable, the oppressed, are all my sisters and brothers.

Wheaton College cannot intimidate me into cowering in fear of the enemy of the month as defined by real estate moguls, senators from Texas, Christians from this country, bigots and fundamentalists of all stripes.

Wheaton College will never induce me to kowtow to their doublespeak concerning the Statement of Faith, so as to appease an imaginary constituency that clearly knows little about what academic freedom or Christian love mean; or to placate platinum donors to their coffers.

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