A tenured Wheaton College professor who, as part of her Christian Advent devotion, donned a traditional headscarf to show solidarity with Muslims has been placed on administrative leave.
Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor at the private evangelical Christian college in Chicago’s west suburbs, announced last week that she would wear the veil to show support for Muslims who have been under greater scrutiny since mass shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she posted on Facebook.
But it was that explanation of her gesture that concerned some evangelical Christians, who read her statement as a conflation of Christian and Muslim theology.
“While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer,” Wheaton College said in a statement.
Hawkins, 43, planned to wear the hijab everywhere she went until Christmas, including on her flight home to Oklahoma, where voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning Shariah, or Islamic law.
She said in a Tribune interview that it’s “a time of real vitriolic rhetoric by fellow Christians sometimes and people who aren’t Christian who conflate all Muslims with terrorist — and that saddens me — so this is a way of saying if all women wear the hijab we cannot discriminate. If all women were in solidarity, who is the real Muslim? How is TSA going to decide who they really suspect?”
While Hawkins did not need to seek approval from Wheaton, she did seek advice from the Council on American Islamic Relations, to make sure she did not offend Muslims.
Renner Larson, communications director for CAIR’s Chicago chapter, said he was intrigued by her decision.
“There’s a lot of misconception about why women wear hijab and this idea that women are forced to wear it,” said Larson, who is not Muslim. “For a lot of people it’s a very powerful choice, especially in the United States it can be a hard, uncomfortable choice. So often women wearing hijab are the targets of attack and hatred because more than anyone else they are so immediately recognizable as Muslim.”
Wheaton administrators did not denounce Hawkins’ gesture but said more conversation should have taken place before it was announced.
“Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution’s faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity,” the college said in a statement. “As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the college’s evangelical Statement of Faith.”
Last week, a coalition of student leaders at Wheaton drafted an open letter calling on evangelical Christian leaders to condemn recent remarks by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. that students armed with guns can “end those Muslims.”
Gene Green, a professor of the New Testament at Wheaton, said what motivated Hawkins is the same concern many faculty members at the school share about the unfair scrutiny facing the Muslim community.
“Dr. Hawkins and others want to follow the example of Jesus, who went to those who were discriminated against,” he said. “He ate with people whom others rejected. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, and the Muslims are our neighbors.”
Larson, who attends a Unitarian Universalist church, said he was dismayed to hear that some view Hawkins’ gesture as compromising Christianity.
“It’s disappointing that showing solidarity means that you are somehow sacrificing your own identity,” he said. “I do what I do not to be closer to Islam but because it makes me closer to my identity as an American who believes in American ideals.”
At St. Martin Episcopal Church in Chicago on Sunday, Hawkins was embraced for her act of solidarity. During the service, other parishioners shared their own stories of how they were reaching out to their Muslim neighbors. Hawkins said she expected the embrace from the welcoming Austin neighborhood church. She didn’t expect the backlash from her own evangelical brothers and sisters.
“I do care about my Christian brothers and sisters, and I didn’t set out to offend them,” she said. “My position has been held for centuries.”