Middle East studies in the News
University of Arkansas Punishes Disinvitation of Speaker Critical of Muslims
by Max Brantley
A story that arose initially last week on the Breitbart website and rapidly became a cause among conservative outlets prompted the University of Arkansas Wednesday to take action against an administrator who apparently disinvited a controversial speaker from a video discussion.
Phyllis Chesler, a New York academic who's written about mistreatment of women in Muslim countries, was scheduled to appear via Skype with a lecture, "Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings," at a conference April 13-14 on "Violence in the Name of Honor: Confronting and Responding to Honor Killings and Forced Marriage in the West." It was cosponsored by the law school and the Saudi-funded King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies.
Three professors — Joel Gordon, Mohja Kahf, and Ted R. Swedenburg – apparently were unhappy about her appearance. She's been viewed by some critics as anti-Islam for her writings about Muslim treatment of women. They asked Center director Thomas Paradise to schedule an additional speaker with different views or not be a sponsor of her talk.
The chain of events gets a little murky at this point, but Chesler's appearance was canceled. A storm on the web followed. Here, for example, is critical commentary in the conservative Daily Caller based on e-mails that had been unearthed during reporter inquiries.
I inquired about the developing controversy last night and got this prepared statement from a university spokesman:
The University of Arkansas believes in the free exchange of ideas and in a balanced presentation of viewpoints and does not approve of a program director's recent decision to cancel a presentation via Skype by Dr. Phyllis Chesler.
Here's a Chesler Tweet on April 27.
The UA is exactly right in supporting a free exchange of ideas. That doesn't mean it's bound to provide a forum for every crackpot. But, however wrong-headed some might find Chesler's views on Islam, she is a credentialed academic and prolific author.
Missing so far from the various accounts I've read are comments from the professors who objected to Chesler and from Paradise. Right- or wrong-headed though they might be, I'd like to hear them speak, too.
I'd add that I gave Ballinger a Twitter answer last night to his question of when legislators should meddle in operation of the independent University of Arkansas.
"Never, ever, ever."
Wishful thinking, I know.
UPDATE: David Koon spoke with Mohja Kahf. She said:
"We did the right thing. We stand by our email. There is a difference between free speech and giving a platform. You're not obligated to give a platform to something you feel would be irresponsible to give a platform to."
She said they wanted to have King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies issue a statement distancing itself from the speaker's stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, and asked to hand out an "Islamophobia is Racism" syllabus to be handed out to attendees.
She also said there were no broken windows at the Middle eastern studies office, something in mentioned in some web accounts. Kahf said that stemmed from an insurance claim filed by Paradise in which a lawn mower kicked a rock into the window of his private home.
KAHF RESPONSE TO BALLINGER: "At what point would the legislature step in if the University was promoting speakers who had parallel stereotypes in their works about other groups of people. Why would that not be applicable to Muslims who are also citizens in the state of Arkansas?"Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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