Free Speech And Intimidation On Campus

As the debate over Israel-Palestine has heated up recently on campuses, questions concerning the right to free speech have taken center stage. For students of Middle Eastern descent, ourselves included, the constitution’s first amendment may just be our last line of defense both on and off campuses in the post- September 11th climate.

Jewish students have no less of a stake in the matter. Across the country they have suffered a number of ugly incidents due to their religion and stance on Israel. At the University of Colorado there were reports of swastikas painted at a booth set up by a Jewish student organization. At the University of California a brick was thrown through a glass door at the Jewish Hillel center. Such actions are absolutely intolerable.

In this context it is hardly surprising that 300 college presidents signed a letter drafted by the American Jewish Committee and published in the New York Times calling for “intimidation-free campuses”. Who could possibly oppose the reaffirmation of our universities as safe-havens for open, free and critical debate? The shocking news was that over 1700 college presidents who were asked to sign the letter opted against it, and the reason for their abstention is a hopeful sign for those struggling to maintain the right to have a political voice on campus.

The letter had one central problem: it only mentioned Jewish students and “supporters of Israel” as potential targets of intimidation. Such one-sidedness is worrisome, particularly considering the extent of intimidation, hate crimes and loss of basic civil liberties experienced by those of Middle Eastern descent since the atrocities of the World Trade Center.

Thankfully, many college presidents recognize this reality. The University of North Carolina Chancellor, James Moeser, expressed this concern most plainly: “I am happy to sign this statement. However, in the wake of September 11th, there have also been acts of violence and intimidation directed at Muslim students and Arabs. I would be happier if this statement were more inclusive.” Chancellor Moeser was not alone in his concern. From Boston College to Duke University, presidents from across the country filed their dissent. One of the original framers of the letter, Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow, raised his hesitations about the letter’s imbalance and eventually decided not to sign the final version because he said it was “cast too narrowly”. William M. Chace, President of Emory University, also one of the letter’s initial backers, withdrew his support after his requests to make the piece “more symmetrical” were denied.

We should not forget what happened after September 11th.

Within weeks after the horrible events at the World Trade Center, street attacks against  Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent reached such a level that even President Bush went racing to the nearest Mosque to call for an end to the violence. Two weeks after September 11th, Attorney General John Ashcroft already had 40 anti-Muslim hate crime cases sitting on his desk. Several mosques were firebombed. A Sikh gas station attendant in Arizona was shot for merely looking like an Arab. Some things have improved since then, but much has not. Last month, the Center for American Islamic Relations, one of the few organizations still tracking the situation, released their annual report revealing that in the last twelve months, the quantity of hate crimes nationally against Middle Easterners is quadruple the number from the previous year, with over 2000 incidents reported to the police.

Campuses were not immune from the wave of backlashes and blatant intimidation. Only a week after the September 11th attacks, two Muslim girls were beaten at Moraine Valley College in Palos Hills, Illinois. At the University of Connecticut, a female Muslim student had her hijab (Islamic head covering) torn off and then she was chased off campus.

Free speech for students of Middle Eastern descent has fared little better. This is especially true for those who dare to raise their voices on politically controversial issues. Only four months ago, a Harvard graduating senior, Zayed Yasin, was slated as one of the commencement speakers, but due to death threats he had to remove the word “jihad” from the title of his speech. Approved by University President Lawrence Summers, the speech was intended to reclaim the true meaning of the word “jihad” as the moral and personal struggle to better oneself and one’s community. It was a critical and historicizing commentary, and one which Richard Hunt, a Harvard Dean who read the proposed draft, described as “healing” and “non-confrontational”. Unfortunately, any such discussion, no matter how reflective, was censored.

Attempts to silence free speech have continued, and especially on matters concerning Israel and Palestine. In a particularly Mcarthyist turn, a recently-founded website called Campus Watch encourages students to report professors who criticize Israel. The emergent divestment movement which hopes to pressure Israel to end its military occupation has met with similarly unfair tactics. As students on campuses across the country have called for universities to withdraw U.S. subsidies and corporate investments supporting the highly repressive policies of the Israeli government in the Occupied territories, these students have been called anti-Semites. This is the worst kind of slur. Student critics of Israeli policies are no more anti-Semitic than opponents of apartheid were anti-Afrikaner or advocates of Tibet are anti-Chinese. Criticizing the actions and laws of a country is very different from attacking people for their religion, nationality or ethnicity.

Many college officials are fully aware of the current political realities facing students of Middle Eastern descent. At the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Dean’s office reported that since September 11th at least 39 Arab students pulled out of their courses, citing fear as a primary factor. The University of Colorado in Denver had 45 Arab students withdraw. Perhaps it’s time for these college officials to draft a more honest, fair and inclusive anti-intimidation letter. Students of all political leanings and ethnic backgrounds would be the better for it.

Rita Hamad is an undergraduate at Harvard University. Shadi Hamid is an undergraduate at Georgetown University. Mitra Ebadolahi is an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles.


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