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Posted in: Culture Wars & Censorship

Published on Nov 19, 2009 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

Princeton, Columbia Cancel Free Speech: Darwish Silenced


In our time, a speaker must face a gauntlet of hostility and a menacing crowd if she wishes to speak in favor of Israel or to tell the truth about Islam.

That's if she's lucky. Most such speakers never get invited or when they do, their invitations are canceled.

Nonie Darwish, the author of Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law and Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror, has faced on-campus hostility and disruption before. Over the years, I have interviewed her about this a number of times. Like many of us, she has also sometimes been forced to have security guards with her when she speaks.

This time, Nonie, who is the founder of Arabs for Israel, was invited to speak at both Columbia and Princeton. The official invitation at Columbia came from the very distinguished CAMERA, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), and from a new student organization there: Campus Media Watch, a group which is not yet quite up and running. Darwish flew from the West Coast, and was already all dressed up and ready to travel to Columbia when she got word that she'd been canceled.

"How humiliating is that? To come all this way, to be almost out the door, only to be told that they had to cancel my speech because campus security felt they could not protect me. Everyone is trying to blame someone else. Even the campus Republicans were afraid to sponsor me. SPME kept trying to fix it, but in the end, they could not."

True, in 2006, President Amadinejad was not able to speak at Columbia because the notice given was too short. However, in 2007, Columbia University was able to provide security for him. And yet they could not provide it for Darwish. In 2006, Holocaust-denier Norman Finkelstein spoke at Columbia and in 2009, anti-Zionist Israeli journalist Amira Hass spoke at Columbia–both without incident. Neither speaker was canceled. Next week, Noam Chomsky is speaking there. In Darwish's view, "I doubt Chomsky will even need any security."

Dr. Judy Jacobson, the co-coordinator of the Columbia chapter of SPME, said this: "Valid concerns were raised by the security team at Columbia. Miscommunications occurred between the students who invited Darwish and the faculty members who tried to get her a room in which to speak. The head of security, John Murolo, would like to be able to provide proper security for her."

Even after the Columbia fiasco, Darwish was still ready to take the train to Princeton when she got word that the event was canceled. "The Jewish group just caved in. The imam spoke to the rabbi and somehow persuaded him that my speech would not be good for Jewish-Muslim relations. Again, the Republicans on campus did not rescue me."

Thus, both Princeton's debate society and Tigers for Israel (more like Pussycats for Israel) caved in.

Princeton? Well, Norman Finkelstein spoke there as well apparently without incident as have the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli Richard Falk and Yoav Peled.

In Darwish's case, Tigers for Israel and the debate society of Princeton both canceled her speech at the last moment. Muslim students, and a Muslim imam, Soaid Sultan, the head of Muslim life on campus, allegedly found what Darwish might say something objectionable. According to Darwish, "they accused me of saying that the Qu'ran has violent passages in it (it surely does), and that I compare Islam with communism."

This accusation was based on a sel, peech that Darwish had not yet given. Does the First Amendment not apply to her? Or to anyone else who says such things? Does the First Amendment exist now merely to protect hate speech against Jews, Israel, and America? And to prevent us from telling the truth about Islam and terrorism?

In Darwish's case, since she has left Islam and converted to Christianity, her words are now easier to dismiss; she is no longer a Muslim and therefore has no right to speak about Islam. (Please see my piece where I write about the "balkanization of the imagination" that this point of view represents).

According to CAMERA, Campus Media Watch, and Dr. Jacobson, speaking for SPME: "We would all like to have Darwish speak at Columbia in the future but we want nothing unpleasant to happen and we want to do it right."

What is one to make of all this? Often, things done in haste on campuses fly right under the radar. Often, huge student and faculty crowds turn out to support the rock star or the politically correct victim of the week. Large, safe rooms are found at the last minute. Experienced and powerful people put their shoulder to the wheel and make sure this happens.

But in this instance, Darwish had to turn around and fly right back home. Even if well-meaning people tried their best, meant well, or had simply not planned things right from the start, this will still stand as yet another day in which free speech and truth speech were silenced in America.


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