Blogs > HNN > Cartoongate Comes to Campus

Mar 7, 2006 2:04 am

Cartoongate Comes to Campus

Last Monday my university, UC Irvine, hosted a dialog between the Palestinian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Manuel Hassassian, and a senior Israeli academic based at the University of Maryland, Edy Kaufman. You probably didn't hear about it, although we sent entreaties to all the major southern California media outlets to come and hear their innovative ideas about how Israelis and Palestinians could re-imagine their peace process. Yet the Ford Foundation thought enough their efforts to help sponsor the event as part of their "difficult dialogs" program.

Chances are, however, that you heard about the big event of the following day: the "unveling" of several of the now infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons by a small but well funded campus Republican group, and the equally large teach-in by Muslim groups outside, which according to news reports "almost ended in blows."

The media's decision that the first event wasn't newsworthy, coupled with the national attention that the "unveiling" received, points to how hard it is today for the university to fulfill its core mission of promoting not just diversity of opinion, but also of innovative and positive ways of transforming problematic situations. Today more than ever before, the mainstream media--and at base, American culture--prefers Jerry Springer and Professional Wrestling-style confrontation to actual attempts at reconciliation, and America is the poorer for it.

The United American Committee, the off-campus group that sponsored the unveiling (the very term, clearly meant to provoke Muslims with allusion to forcibly removing the headscarves or veils some Muslim women wear, also insulted Jews who, like me, have been to the unveiling of a loved one's tombstone on the first year anniversary of their death) has next to no constituency on our campus. But that didn't stop it from using the university for its own ends. In fact, UAC's strategic use of the university as a platform to hold a provocative event is part of a larger trend in which outside groups increasingly use the space, and the commitment to free speech, afforded by university campuses to hold events designed for maximum exposure through maximum insult.

Muslim groups active on campus are no less guilty, however, as they've repeatedly invited speakers to campus whose rhetoric is as anti-Jewish as the unveiling was anti-Muslim (indeed, one of the speakers at the event called Islam an "evil religion"). But more troubling than the tone of the event was the clear ignorance of the students who were corralled into sponsoring it as to the reasons behind their actions. The College Republicans were completely unable to articulate a justification for holding the event other than "it's a free speech issue." But when pressed as to why use this example to promote free speech--why not show pornographic photos? Or pictures of dead fetuses, or any one of numerous other insulting images they could have chosen to use in their defense of free speech--it became clear that the primary reason was to provoke the Muslim community on campus as part of a larger strategy of demonstrating that UCI is a "hotbed of Islamic extremism" and that Muslims "aren't doing enough to fight terrorism."

Muslim groups, both in and outside campus, where much more polite in their protests. Yet the administration received numerous calls by students and the community asking the University to cancel the event; and there is clearly a significant segment of the Muslim community that seem unwilling to accept that however despicable the cartoons and suspect the motives of the sponsors of the unveiling, the university could and would not step in and cancel the event. Free speech is more important than hurt feelings, no matter how deep they run.

Why is this dynamic such a big problem? As one senior colleague lamented, the actions of the students and their outside sponsors reflect a dangerous ignorance of both the history and importance of free speech in the university, and equally important, of the need to use that freedom responsibly, towards the building of tolerance towards ideas that challenge one's own beliefs, however strong they are. This is a troubling trend that reveals a generation of students, and of the outside organizations that influence them, who no longer understand, or at least respect, the fundamental purpose and ethics of the university.

Indeed, the outside organizations that promote these events that stoke animosity have no interest in reconciliation or true freedom of speech; rather, they're institutionally committed to increasing intercommunal hostility, which is the best fundraising and recruitment tool they have at their disposal.

But this growing willful ignorance of the role of the university and of freedom of speech and the press (and the social responsibility that comes with it), is not unique to UCI, or academia more broadly. Just yesterday the Norwegian Government issued a new blasphemy law that criminalizes "lampooning of religion in any form of expression." Norway's Deputy Archbishop announced the new law at a meeting with the famed Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is viewed as a moderate figure, except that he support suicide bombings against Israelis and the execution of homosexuals. Qaradawi used the event to call for the UN and the EU to pass bans on blasphemy worldwide.

Equally troubling, on the same day a group of well-known intellectuals, including some prominent secular Muslims such as Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji, issued a statement that mirrored the bigoted language as the United American Committee at UCI. In it they called Islamism "the new global threat," and condemned it as a "totalitarian and… reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present."

Such a base reduction of Muslim religious belief to one simplistic and in many ways artificial category called "Islamism" (a term which, it should be noted, most of the ultra-conservative Muslims against whom the statement was directed, do not even use to describe themselves) generalizes the worst aspects of one expression of Islamic faith as if it encapsulates the entire breadth of Muslim belief. It betrays an utter ignorance of the complexity of contemporary Islam, and the reality--which the Left as much as the Right seems to have a hard time accepting--that there is a growing body of Muslims who are both religious and progressive.

Ironically, it is precisely these people who, in the words of the Swiss Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan (who has been attacked by the Left and Right for allegedly misleading the West about his "true motives"), are engaged in the process of secularizing Islam that the supposed defenders of "universal values" seem totally unaware of. It seems that Muslims, and their non-Muslim allies, can be as ignorant of their religion, and willfully so, as everyone else.

At a dinner with faculty before their talk, Hassassian and Kaufman offered their advice on how to handle what everyone knew would be the far more contentious event of the following day: Kaufman urged us to understand the legitimate needs that were reflected by the desire of some students, however small their number, to hold such an event. Hassassian, who has seen his share of secular-religious conflicts as Dean of Students at Bethlehem University, advised us to wait till tempers cooled and then bring in the various student leaders and ask them to explain just what their goals were, whether it was worth the animosity it caused, and how they could more positively deal with a similar situation next time it occurred. Both urged us to work hard to empower the moderate but normally silent majority of students.

It's nice to know that even in the tempest that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, professors can expect that students will pursue the search for truth in the most objective and socially mature means at their disposal. In the US, such an attitude is becoming rarer by the day, which grave implications for the future of civil discourse in the university, and in the country at large.

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Don Willis - 3/8/2006

As a recent alum of UCI, and still an Irvine resident, I think your description underestimates the degree to which activities of the Muslim Student Union at UCI created an atmosphere of brinksmanship on some of these issues. Without disputing whether certain remarks or aspects of the presentation were offensive, the cartoons themselves have legitimate value as a current event. The news media tied themselves in knots with their excuses for not showing them, while there was obviously a great curiosity to see them. In contrast, in recent years, the MSU has consistently had programming and speakers whose main purpose seemed mindless provocation. For anyone reading this comment who is not familiar, think of Louis Farrakhan channeling a Friday sermon from the Finsbury Park Mosque.

There are no doubt ways to present these cartoons in a more meaningful, educational way than what was attempted last week. But I have also read where professors who tried to do just that in their classrooms were met with reproach by Muslim students.