As a scholar of media studies, Deepa Kumar knew her tweet comparing the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Islamic State (ISIS) was provocative. But the tweet, posted in March, didn’t stir up much controversy until recently, when it resurfaced on far-right blogs and on Fox News. Now Kumar, an associate professor at Rutgers University, is being flooded with hate mail and even violent threats. And unlike several others scholars who’ve been slammed in recent media reports for their controversial tweets, Kumar is speaking out against coverage she says is unfair.
“This is not the only case of a professor being targeted by Fox News and by the right -- in fact, there’s a long history here of trying to silence and intimidate faculty who have dissenting opinions on the U.S. government and policies in the Middle East,” Kumar said in an interview. “The only way to push back and defend myself is to be public about it.”
Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, is a frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy, including on Twitter. And in March she posted the following tweet, linking to a report on the number of casualties resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the post attracted some criticism from other social media users at the time. But it hardly made waves until Monday, when Fox News ran a segment on Kumar’s tweet. Several commentators criticized her rhetoric and questioned whether she should be teaching at a publicly funded university. The general consensus of the discussion was that Kumar's comments were objectionable but protected speech.
But Kumar said the segment veered into a “smear campaign” when commentators erroneously asserted that Rutgers had revoked former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s 2014 invitation to deliver the commencement address amid intense criticism from faculty members, including Kumar. In fact, Rice backed out of her own accord -- although, of course, under intense pressure. Fox commentators suggested that Kumar was a hypocrite for exercising her own free, controversial speech while attempting to stifle Rice’s. As proof, they referenced a 2014 tweet by Kumar saying “we won” in response to Rice’s withdrawal.
Kumar called the characterization of her participation in the campaign against Rice’s appearance inaccurate. She reiterated that Rutgers did not pull the plug on Rice, and said that she and other concerned faculty members didn’t want to block the George W. Bush-era secretary of state from coming to campus altogether. Rather, Kumar said they wanted to engage Rice in a more dialogue-based format than a commencement speech.
“They distorted a bunch of things about what I’ve said and done,” Kumar said of the commentators. “I had no objection to [Rice] coming as a guest speaker, but commencement speeches are not a venue for debate.”
Within hours of the segment, Kumar started to receive hate mail -- some of it forwarded to colleagues and administrators, as well. One email sent to dozens of Rutgers peers, for example, includes a number of racist and sexist slurs, and suggests that Kumar leave the country for Syria and endure “vaginal mutilation.”
Regina Marchi, a fellow associate professor in Kumar’s department, said via email that she and other faculty members “found the level of sexualized vulgarity and violence in the [note] extremely disturbing.” The role of a university professor, she added, “is to encourage critical thinking and diverse perspectives in order to foster the the kind of lively discussion and debate necessary for democratic deliberation. Professor Kumar's tweet, which was from last March, was presented by Fox News with no context, making it impossible for the public to understand her larger arguments.”
Marchi said Kumar's colleagues support her right to free speech. But others outside the university have publicly criticized Rutgers for continuing to employ Kumar.
Kumar said she believes the commenters want to intimidate her into silence. She said she’s concerned about her physical safety and even her position at the university.
“They seemingly think they have the power to get us fired,” Kumar said of those who have contacted the university about her and other controversial professors elsewhere, “which I hope doesn’t happen.”
A Rutgers spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As to why her tweet is coming to light now, Kumar said she was involved in a June conference for critical terrorism studies scholars that attracted lots of negative attention in the blogosphere. A slide from Kumar’s presentation, which she said was taken out of context, has been circulating since. And earlier this month, the far-right college life website SoCawlege published a piece on Kumar and her Twitter history.
If the story sounds somewhat familiar, it is. In May, for example, SoCawlege published months-old tweets about race by Saida Grundy, an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University. Fox News ran a story about Grundy's tweets, leading to a similar controversy. And earlier this month, the University of Memphis announced that Zandria Robinson -- the assistant professor of sociology whose tweets about race were compiled by another set of conservative blogs -- was no longer employed there. (She left after she was hired by Rhodes College.)
Grundy and Robinson have stayed relatively quiet about their cases. But Kumar, who has tenure, intends to keep speaking out. She said she welcomes debate and engagement on the issues raised in her original post, but not intimidation.