"Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" is still three weeks away, but the event and a similar campaign from Young America's Foundation are already setting off campus controversies and debates about tolerance and free speech.
Organizers -- who are planning events at dozens of campuses -- say that they are just trying to make students aware of the threats posed by radical Islam to the United States. Speeches are being scheduled on multiple campuses by such luminaries of the right as David Horowitz (chief proponent of the week), Ann Coulter, and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. More intellectual takes will come from such neoconservative icons of Middle East policy as Michael Ledeen and Daniel Pipes. The in-your-face approach of publicity for the events (not to mention some of the speakers) is already setting off campus debates over whether the campaign being orchestrated is about informing students or intimidating Muslim students and selected targets of the right (such as women's studies programs).
Already charges are flying from organizers about posters being torn down and colleges blocking access for events. And critics are firing back, questioning the motives of the efforts. With the Middle East already dividing many campus groups, October could be a month of additional tensions.
For a sign of how easily rhetoric about the Middle East can escalate, consider George Washington University, where authorities discovered hundreds of posters Monday that said: "Hate Muslims? So do we!" A "typical Muslim" is then portrayed, with features identified such as "venom from mouth" and "suicide vest." University police removed the posters and are investigating who put them up.
The posters claimed to be from the campus chapter of Young America's Foundation, which immediately issued a statement condemning the posters as "hate speech" that had never been authorized by the group. The statement said that YAF has a system for approving posters, and that no one ever submitted such a poster for approval. The YAF at George Washington said it was promoting events later this month to condemn terrorism and violence -- and that one part of its efforts would include bringing Horowitz to campus. Steven Knapp, president of the university, also released a statement, calling the posters "reprehensible" and stating that "there is no place for expressions of hatred on our campus."
Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said her group has been writing to colleges identified as planning events with Islamo-Fascism Week, asking them why they were doing so. She said that while there are "serious and legitimate problems in the Arab and Muslim worlds," Horowitz's "obsessive focus" on Arabs and Muslims encouraged the view that people could "with impunity" say anything they want about members of those groups -- and that encourages events like the the plastering of George Washington with offensive posters.
Some posters less inflammatory have already set off campus debates this fall. At Middlebury College, the campus Republican group marked the anniversary of 9/11 last month by posting a "Never Forget" poster produced by the national YAF. The poster features a series of images: the World Trade Center about to fall, Daniel Pearl in captivity, U.S. hostages in Iran, the burning of an American flag, and so forth.
Many of the posters were torn down or defaced. Other students wrote of their opposition to the display. In The Middlebury Campus, one student op-ed argued that the poster had no place at the college.
"The message it conveys is of an isolated America facing the menace of militant Islam. For a college that prides itself on a high percentage of international students, and of exemplary programs of international study, it is unbecoming of Middlebury to tolerate this kind of rubbish on its walls," wrote Andrey Tolstoy, a sophomore. "Anyone with a sufficient knowledge of history could point to the dangerous errors embedded in the poster. The events illustrated on it -- the Iranian hostage crisis, embassy bombings in Africa, September 11th, flag-burning, and others -- are separated not only by time, but by motivation and political context. By weaving them into a unified chain -- or, to be more precise, quilt -- the College Republicans attempt to incite panic and muddle our understanding of the political challenges facing America, not to mention carelessly promoting racist -- and, more importantly, false -- generalizations about Arabs, Islam and their relationship to structures of international terrorism."
Heather Pangle, a sophomore who is co-president of the College Republicans at Middlebury, said it was "a gross generalization and misunderstanding" to say that the poster was anti-Muslim. "We didn't have any images that were purely of peaceful Muslims," she said. "All of our images were of Islamic radicals who were attempting to harm Americans. The poster had nothing to do with peaceful Muslims."
Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week will take place October 22-26, and is sponsored by the Terrorism Awareness Project, which is affiliated with the David Horowitz Freedom Center. The project says that 147 colleges will have programs related to the effort -- although officials on some of the campuses involved say that they haven't heard of any planned activities.
The Web site of the project is a mix of attacks on radical Islam and the academic left. As the Web site explains: "The purpose of this protest is as simple as it is crucial: to confront the two Big Lies of the political left: that George Bush created the war on terror and that Global Warming is a greater danger to Americans than the terrorist threat. Nothing could be more politically incorrect than to point this out. But nothing could be more important for American students to hear. In the face of the greatest danger Americans have ever confronted, the academic left has mobilized to create sympathy for the enemy and to fight anyone who rallies Americans to defend themselves. According to the academic left, anyone who links Islamic radicalism to the war on terror is an 'Islamophobe.' According to the academic left, the Islamo-fascists hate us not because we are tolerant and free, but because we are 'oppressors.' "
In an interview, Horowitz said that the primary purpose of the week was to promote "awareness" among students. In addition to the lectures and posters, Horowitz said that -- on some campuses -- students plan to hold sit-ins in women's studies departments. If the sit-ins take place, they would represent quite a shift in campus politics, where sit-ins are generally a preferred strategy of the campus left.
Asked why he was making women's studies a target, given that the Muslim movements Horowitz opposes are not known to be taking direction from feminist scholars, Horowitz said that he has been having students research the departments and that the sit-ins will take place at campuses where there are not women's studies courses that focus on the treatment of women under Islam. "Women's studies, as everybody knows, all you have to do is look at their templates, they are about unequal power, the oppression of women, so if they don't have a course on oppression of women in Islam, they should." He added that if he finds women's studies professors who teach about the treatment of women in Islam, he would welcome them at the events his supporters are organizing on campuses.
Allison Kimmich, executive director of the National Women's Studies Association, said that Horowitz was "completely off the mark" with his view of the discipline and she noted that many scholars in the field examine the treatment of women in Islam and in countries all over the world. "I think that the notion that women's studies faculty ignore the complexity of women's treatment under Islam or any fundamentalist religion is a demonstration of how little Horowitz knows about the field of women's studies, because there is a great deal of scholarly work on this subject," she said.
At campuses where Horowitz is planning to speak, some Muslim students are asking that his events be called off. In a column in The Emory Wheel, called "Free Speech Is No Excuse for Hatred," Benish Shah wrote that Emory University would be unlikely to give a forum to a Holocaust denier, and questioned why such a standard shouldn't apply to Horowitz.
"Horowitz knows little to nothing about Islam, and uses his minuscule knowledge to spark anger, hatred and frustration. Anger in Muslims who are misrepresented by his bigoted language. Hatred in Americans who have no knowledge of what Islam or terrorism is really about. Frustration in those Muslims and non-Muslims who have worked tirelessly to educate others about what Islam is, what the roots of terrorism are in war-ridden areas and that the acts of a few radicals do not define an entire religion," wrote Shah. "If Emory allows him access to their student body, they are risking their reputation amongst future students who will not view the campus as a place of higher learning, but a place of bias against minorities with a lack of commitment to diversity and understanding."
Horowitz and his supporters say that some campuses are blocking the activities that they want to organize. One of Horowitz's Web sites has printed excerpts from e-mail messages from an administrator at Columbus State Community College, in Ohio, barring posters from going up. William Kopp, vice president for institutional advancement Columbus State, said that those excerpts create a false impression. Kopp said that Columbus State has not attempted to bar the events from taking place and would not do so. As to the posters, he said that the college has "free speech kiosks" outside where students may post anything they want -- including the poster in question. But inside classroom buildings, Kopp said that the college reserves the right to approve posters and that an official found the poster "offensive" for that area, and suggested that it be modified. Kopp said that announcements about the events would not be barred inside, and that the only objection was to a graphic image of an execution.
In addition, Horowitz points to Westmont College, in California, which recently had its lawyer write to his center, demanding that its name be taken off the list of institutions participating in the week. A spokesman for Westmont said that the letter did not reflect censorship, but reality -- he said that the college contacted all the groups on campus that might be involved and none of them indicated that they were participating. Jeffrey Weiner, a development associate at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, said he removed the name of Westmont from the list, but that it might go back if a professor follows through on plans to organize an event there.
Weiner noted that the list does not state that colleges are endorsing the week's activities, only that someone at the campus is participating. Horowitz said that the events were consistent with his views on hearing all sides of issues -- and that he was encouraging students to invite to their panel discussions people who disagree with them.
Some Horowitz critics have made a point of not seeking to block his events. Free Exchange on Campus, a coalition of academic groups that opposed Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights," issued a statement Monday noting the concern of some that Horowitz is organizing these events to "provoke opposition." But whatever his motives or ideas, the statement continued, campus groups should respond with more ideas and events, not by trying to have him barred.
"Regardless of people's agreement or disagreement with Horowitz and those hosting these events, we urge faculty and students to express their opinions by fostering vigorous and substantive debate on campus. We believe views should be backed with reasoned arguments and should engage as many people as possible. This is a far better response than attempting to prevent campus events from happening or speakers from being able to speak," the statement said.
The Free Exchange group also has pointed out an error of fact in press materials that have been issued for Islamo-Fascism Week activities. Press materials originally featured a photograph that was said to show a teenage girl being buried before being stoned to death, for sexual offenses that violated the laws of Islamic authorities. But as Free Exchange pointed out, the photograph wasn't of a real event, but from a 1994 Dutch film. The photo in question has been dropped from the Islamo-Fascism Web site.