The Guardian: Chicago Christian college suspends professor after headscarf comments

A Christian college in Chicago has suspended a tenured professor who has been wearing a headscarf to show solidarity with Muslims, a decision she said was made as part of her Christian Advent worship and has prompted “pushback almost exclusively from other Christians”.

Last week, Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College, announced her decision to wear a hijab as a demonstration of “human solidarity” with Muslims, in the wake of the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which authorities said was inspired by Islamist terrorists.

“I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind,” she posted on Facebook. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book.”

But the comments made by the 43-year-old generated confusion at Wheaton’s campus about “complex theological matters”, the college asserted in a statementlast Friday. And, it continued, some Christians may have interpreted Hawkins’ remarks as a failure to “reflect the distinctively Christian theological identity of Wheaton College”.

As a result of Hawkins’ comments, Wheaton, a private evangelical liberal arts college in Chicago’s west suburbs, placed the professor on administrative leave, pending a review the college said she’s entitled to receive as a tenured faculty member.

The college declined a request for comment but in a statement issued on Wednesday, Wheaton president Dr Philip Ryken said it has “no stated position” on whether headscarves can be worn “as a gesture of care and concern for those in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution”.

“We support the protection of all Americans including the right to the free exercise of religion, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States,” Ryken said.

Hawkins, who did not respond to requests for comment, told the Chicago Tribune she planned to don the hijab everywhere until Christmas.

The US is currently dealing with “real vitriolic rhetoric by fellow Christians, sometimes, and people who aren’t Christians who conflate all Muslims with terrorists – and that saddens me – so this is a way of saying if all women wear the hijab we cannot discriminate,” Hawkins told the newspaper.

Prior to her decision, Hawkins sought the advice of the Council on American Islamic Relations (Cair) chapter in Chicago, to ensure it wasn’t offensive for a non-Muslim to wear the hijab.

Hawkins and a staff member at the Cair office had an informal discussion, and “he supported the idea, as do we officially”, Rehab said.

“It speaks really to her sense of compassion and integrity as a human being,” executive director Ahmed Rehab told the Guardian. Hawkins was confident her decision fell in line with her understanding of the religion, Rehab said, “but it turns out that others within the Christian tradition felt that this was out of bounds, unfortunately”.

“We’re dismayed by [Wheaton’s] decision,” he said, “because essentially it is an act of human solidarity meant to be rooted in theological compassion – to stand with students, Muslim students at Wheaton and elsewhere who are the victims of this current backlash of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.”

Rehab said the reasoning of Hawkins’ decision was clear. “She’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” he said, and it was rooted in Christian theology of compassion.

“Anyone who disagrees with that,” he continued, “I would ask them why? Why they believe Christianity should be non-compassionate, and why they would differ with this Christian woman and her understanding. I’d love to hear an answer to that.”

Students at Wheaton drew attention last week in an open letter decrying statements by Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr that students armed with firearms could “end those Muslims”. The letter called on evangelical Christian leaders to condemn Falwell’s remarks. On Wednesday, they demanded Hawkins’ reinstatement and launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #ReinstateDocHawk.

The headline on this article was amended on 16 November 2015 to reflect that Hawkins’s comments, not her decision to wear a hijab, lead to her being placed on leave.