A prominent Vanderbilt University professor published a column last week that is being called hate speech for its critique of Islam in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Angry students held a protest Saturday that attracted many critics of the professor -- as well as a prominent supporter who is accusing the students and Vanderbilt of censoring her defense of the professor.
The professor is Carol Swain, a professor of political science and law, who is the author of numerous scholarly books published by top presses. On her own website, she identifies herself this way: "From high school dropout and teenage mother to esteemed Vanderbilt University law professor, Carol M. Swain is passionate about empowering others to confidently raise their conservative voices in the public square. Dr. Swain’s education and experiences make her a credible and powerful force for change in today’s social and political climate where conservatives are intimidated to champion an often-unpopular message."
Her latest column leaves no doubts about her willingness to speak out.
In The Tennessean, Swain wrote that the Paris attacks show that critics of Islam are correct. She opens by asking: "What would it take to make us admit we were wrong about Islam? What horrendous attack would finally convince us that Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration?"
She goes on in her piece to attack not just those who murdered in Paris, but the faith generally. "More and more members of the PC crowd now acknowledge that Islam has absolutely nothing in common with Christianity, nor is it a worthy part of the brotherhood of man I long felt was characteristic of the Abrahamic religions," she wrote. "A younger, more naive version of myself once believed in a world where the people of the Book could and would get along because they all claimed Abraham as their father. No more!"
Swain urges that "[c]ivic education and other indicators of assimilation should be a prerequisite for remaining and advancing in this nation. We must be willing to recognize the dangers of the burka (head-to-toe garb worn by women in some Islamic sects), which allows individuals to completely conceal their identities." And she says that if "Muslims are to thrive in America, and if we are to be safe, then we must have ground rules that protect the people from those who disdain the freedoms that most of the world covets."
Vanderbilt's provost, Susan Wente, released this statement about the column: "We in no way condone or support the views stated in the editorial, and understand that they are deeply offensive to many members of our community – Muslim and non-Muslim alike. We are fully committed to ensuring our campus is a safe and welcoming environment for all. Closely related to this commitment is our support of free speech, which is put to the test when polarizing speech such as this is shared. It is in these times more than ever when we must keep dialogue open."
Students rallied against the Swain column on Saturday and have been posting comments on social media and elsewhere criticizing her.
One letter to the editor of the student newspaper, from a student from Pakistan, says: "I have started feeling depressed after seeing how on one hand mindless extremists do so much wrong in the name of my peaceful religion, and on the other hand people who I thought were open-minded and accepting go on and pass such saddening remarks about me and the most of my fellow Muslims who have never in their lives even thought of spreading terror. I want to feel at home at Vanderbilt. I love Vanderbilt and its people. But if there persists such open hate speech in this university, I fear Vanderbilt's constant efforts to be diverse and a second home to its students will be futile."
The university's Muslim Student Association published a letter Sunday in which it said: "The inciting article in The Tennessean has caused a great deal of emotional distress and frustration. However, we forgive. We forgive the hurtful, inciting comments made by Professor Swain. We forgive her and give her the benefit of the doubt that perhaps she has not taken the time to familiarize herself with the American Muslim community and therefore doesn't know that we believe and stand for forgiveness, peace and love. She has allowed the acts of people who have distorted Islam to shape her views on an entire community of 1.6 billion people who practice peacefully. We wish that the opportunity to meet a Muslim who can relay to her the gems of our peaceful and kind faith reached her in the past."
Saturday's rally took a turn to political theater when Victoria Jackson, a former "Saturday Night Live" star who is now a conservative activist, attended the rally with a sign that said "Ban Sharia." According to The Tennessean, she ran to the microphone being used by protesters and tried to back Swain by shouting "Freedom of Speech," but the microphone had been cut off. Jackson is now accusing Vanderbilt of censoring her.
On her Facebook page, Swain posted her response to the controversy: "Why are today's university students so fragile they need counseling and affirmation whenever they hear something that makes them uncomfortable? Learning how to deal with your emotions is part of growing up. #VanderbiltU"
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