Chicago Tribune: Wheaton College students back suspended professor wearing hijab

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, sparking protests on the west suburban campus Wednesday.

Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor at the private evangelical Christian college, 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. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

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.

But on Wednesday, students in the grip of finals, filtered into the lobby of the college’s administration building to deliver a letter to President Philip Ryken and Provost Stan Jones demanding Hawkins’ reinstatement.

Wyatt Harms said supporting Hawkins, who is “unparalleled in her academics,” was a more urgent priority than studying.

“Dr. Hawkins is an essential part of the community here,” said Harms, a political science major who has taken several of Hawkins’ classes. “She’s a refuge for so many students on campus.”

Students discussed a social media campaign to support Hawkins, #ReinstateDocHawk, through which students and alumni could share their personal stories of Hawkins’ teaching or mentorship. They also mentioned an online petition that’s gathered nearly 900 signatures.

“Dr. Hawkins has and continues to be an invaluable resource to the students of Wheaton College, particularly to those of color,” the letter said. “She is known for her sharp intelligence, her challenging intellect, and her ability to encourage those around her to live an incarnational faith.”

“We believe there is nothing in Dr. Hawkins’ public statements that goes against the belief in the power and nature of God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit that the Statement of Faith deems as a necessary requirement for affiliation with Wheaton College,” the letter continued.

Clara Kent, who graduated in 2014 with a major in anthropology, relied on Hawkins as a mentor and academic adviser during her college career.

“She’s an example of love, compassion and justice,” Kent said.

Hawkins, 43, of Oak Park, 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.

“In a time of real vitriolic rhetoric, by fellow Christians sometimes, and people who aren’t Christian who conflate all Muslims with terrorists — and that saddens me — this is a way of saying if all women wear the hijab we cannot discriminate,” she said in a Tribune interview. “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 College, 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 idea when she approached him.

“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.”