Middle East studies in the News
What Makes Kevin Barrett Tick?
by Aaron Nathans
LONE ROCK - Kevin Barrett's father could have won an Olympic gold medal in 1964, if not for a mistake that nobody noticed but he.
Peter Barrett was competing in a series of seven sailing races in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He accidentally hit a mark, grounds for disqualification, but wasn't caught. He nearly finished the race, but at the finish line, in first place, he dropped out, admitting the foul. He ended up winning the silver on the strength of his performance in the other races.
Sitting in front of his grandparents' television in Madison, a 5-year-old Kevin Barrett was watching. He recalled being proud of his father after learning what happened. He said he also learned an important lesson.
"It's important to do what's right, and to follow the truth, no matter what," Kevin Barrett said in a recent interview, noting that his late father won the gold four years later. "Cheating for strategic advantage is unacceptable."
Kevin Barrett, now 47, says he has long searched for truth and deeper meaning. More often than not, he finds that truth in the pages of a book. Many of his books line a log cabin he often visits here in Lone Rock, a sparsely populated town an hour west of Madison.
He takes care of the cabin for Khidria, the Madison Islamic organization that owns it. It is surrounded by towering pines. His 1964 Dodge camper, with a faded San Francisco State University bumper sticker, is parked out front. Visitors are greeted by his tan shepherd dog, Rushdie.
He calls the cabin his zawiya, or Islamic spiritual retreat. There's a lot of peace to be found here, an escape from the academic and political rigors of Madison, where Barrett, his wife and their two boys, 12 and 9, live in University of Wisconsin staff housing. Here, Barrett tends the peppers, tomatoes and squash in the organic gardens, complete with rain barrels. On a bright day, the sun reveals bass swimming in the lake out back. But there is little peace for Barrett these days.
"I've been too busy to fish. I've been too busy to do anything," said Barrett, whose red beard is graying, as he climbed the hill from the lake toward the cabin. On the way up, he passed an old satellite dish and a faded orange Everlast punching bag. "This 9/11 thing is turning into a monster."
Barrett has recently emerged from obscurity to gain worldwide attention for his belief that some top U.S. government officials orchestrated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He works to punch holes in the government's official version of the attacks from the second floor of the Lone Rock cabin.
Here he runs the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth. Members of his alliance have various opinions about this nation's level of complicity in the attacks, but all say they want a review more thorough than the one the 9/11 Commission provided in 2004, Barrett said.
Barrett, a UW lecturer on Islam, personally believes the World Trade Center towers were brought down by a controlled demolition.
He also believes that the story of the hijacked plane that hit the Pentagon is "preposterous."
"Their agenda goes way beyond Iraq. They want 50 years of war at least," Barrett said of the U.S. government, sitting barefoot in a soft chair in the cabin. The government wants to gain power over the Middle East and Central Asia, he said. "They'll be able to use the psychological impact of 9/11 for another 50 years."
MKevin Barrett grew up in a home where both parents were highly educated and well-read, and both would eventually become UW-Whitewater professors in business and accounting. Kevin was such an avid and advanced reader that he skipped first grade.
He recalled challenging a seventh-grade teacher who supported the war in Vietnam. Two years later, he watched in awe as Mark Lane, attorney for Lee Harvey Oswald, spoke at a local college. Lane showed the Abraham Zapruder home movie of the assassination frame by frame to raise the question of whether his late client was guilty of killing President Kennedy.
But Barrett recalls being most deeply moved by a smart, eccentric woman who questioned orthodoxy. Barrett credits Charlotte Smith, the librarian at Pewaukee High School, for guiding him to a political satirist named Kurt Vonnegut and a psychoanalyst named Sigmund Freud. She even showed him where the library kept a hidden copy of Philip Roth's sexual coming-of-age novel "Portnoy's Complaint."
"She would have gotten in trouble if any student had got ahold of it and found the pornographic passages. Of course, I did, and entertained the lunchroom with it," Barrett said.
Smith suggested he read books by cult novelist Philip K. Dick. Barrett said three of Dick's books stand out on his all-time favorite reading list: "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," which he calls "a hallucination parody of our mind-controlled society"; "The Man in the High Castle," an alternate history of what would have happened had the Nazis won World War II; and "Ubik," a commentary on consumer culture.
Once at UW-Madison, Barrett combined his love of intellectual inquiry with a hard partying lifestyle, hanging out with "eccentrics and hippies," and receiving his bachelor's degree in journalism in 1981.
After graduation, he took off for San Francisco in a 1955 school bus. In the Bay Area, he sang in a punk band, wrote poetry and did odd jobs like moving furniture and proofreading academic papers. He spent a year in Seattle working for a group that advocated a nuclear arms freeze, and volunteering for former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. But upon returning to San Francisco, he fell back into his life of partying and creative intellectualism, enjoying gatherings at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Barrett, from a family of "lapsed Unitarians," was at the time dabbling in existentialism, absurdism and Zen.
"He was a young man," said longtime friend Jackie Leder, now a criminal defense attorney outside Chicago, "living on a bus."
Seeking some direction in his life, he enrolled at San Francisco State, where he received two master's degrees, in English literature and French, in the early 1990s.
Peter Weltner, his English literature thesis adviser, said Barrett was one his most memorable students. Barrett wrote his thesis on Dick, the author. Weltner said it was one of the few theses he ever read for pleasure.
"It was laugh-out-loud funny. It subverted the stodgy notion of what a thesis is supposed to do, without eliminating the fundamental part of it," Weltner said. "It was an extraordinary, unusually intelligent piece of work."
Nevertheless, Barrett had the ability to separate Dick's diabolical vision of American society from his own political beliefs, Weltner said. Barrett hardly seemed a conspiracy theorist, he said. The best scholars of literature read with a "somewhat more detached way of looking at the world, and certainly Kevin, to me, had that."
But Leder, who attended UW-Madison with Barrett when they were undergraduates, said her friend has always been good at separating his work in the classroom from his personal pursuits. Barrett has always been fascinated by the Kennedy assassination, she said.
"He does have a great distrust of government in general," said Leder, noting he grew up during Watergate and Vietnam. "The distrust of authority has been long-standing."
During his time in San Francisco, Barrett was exploring mysticism. He recalled accidentally wandering into a lecture on Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, by Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy. That got him thinking more critically about the nature of God.
In 1993, he took a train from San Francisco to New York with a friend. He was reading Gore Vidal's "Live From Golgotha," a book portraying biblical events as if they were on television, which inspired him to entertain passengers in the lounge car with a stand-up comedy routine about religion.
The night they arrived, in a cafe in Brooklyn, he met his future wife, a Moroccan-born woman who practiced Islam. The next day, a friend in New York gave him a copy of "TAZ," by Hakim Bey, which Barrett describes as an "anarchist manifesto" inspired by Islamic ideas. The book "was so poetic, it had this poetry that strips away veils. There was just a whiff of that, it was pointing toward Islamic mysticism." He had to learn more.
Later that day, he and his future wife met up to chat again, this time at a train station below the World Trade Center. Just a month later, the complex would be bombed for the first time, piquing his attention.
A few months later, Barrett and his beloved were married, first in a formal Islamic wedding, and later at City Hall. Several days before they tied the knot, he said the Shahada, or Muslim declaration of the oneness of God, in front of some Moroccan Muslims there, making his conversion official.
"I was walking on Cloud Nine," he said in a recent interview. "I'd found something I'd been looking for. It's indescribable, it's a step back to God." What resonated so much, he said, was the Islamic approach to God.
"The Christians seemed to imagine God as an old guy with a beard, a patriarch," he said, noting that he does not identify with a particular sect of the faith. "In Islam, God is much more transcendental, much less anthropomorphic. The first tangible quality of God is mercy and compassion."
(Barrett's wife requested that her name not appear in this article. She said she wanted to keep herself and her children out of the fierce controversy surrounding her husband. American media go too far in invading the private lives of public figures and their families, she added. "What happened with Clinton would never happen in Morocco," she said.)
After he converted, Barrett gradually gave up alcohol. He was determined to learn Arabic, and the only sure way to do that, he said, was to go for a doctorate. He returned to UW-Madison with his wife in 1995. They spent a year in Morocco when he was a Fulbright scholar, culminating in a dissertation on Moroccan legend. Barrett received his doctorate in African languages and literature, with a folklore minor, from UW-Madison in 2004.
Harold Scheub, the Evjue Bascom professor of humanities, said Barrett was a fine doctoral student and handled himself well.
"He defended it very effectively," said Scheub, who was his dissertation adviser.
Barrett was teaching a folklore class as a teaching assistant on Sept. 11, 2001, when word began to roll in about the attacks. He says he was immediately skeptical when he saw the 19 names of the hijackers and that they were members of al-Qaida, which he considered a disorganized and ineffectual group. The United States and Saudi Arabia gave funding to Osama bin Laden and his fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s; Barrett believed, as many do, that the CIA created al-Qaida.
Barrett said he thought: "Someone's going to make a lot of money off of this. The defense budget's going to double overnight."
He puzzled over the official story for two years, believing there were "lots of holes." At Mark Wolfert's auto body shop in Lone Rock, a hot spot for political chat among locals, the conversation often turned to the attacks. Barrett was just one of the regulars who believed something was fishy with the government's official line.
In late 2003, Barrett heard that one of the theologians he was citing in his dissertation, David Ray Griffin, was writing a book about problems with the government's story of the attacks. Barrett admired Griffin's work, and decided to do some of his own research.
When Griffin's book, "The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11," came out the next March, it made points that resonated with Barrett.
Griffin's arguments contended that the air defenses around Washington were lax on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, allowing a plane to plow into the Pentagon nearly an hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Griffin wondered why the pilot of that flight was reported to have had trouble flying a Cessna, yet was able to perform a complicated flight maneuver of dropping the plane 8,000 feet in two and a half minutes to attack the Pentagon.
And he raises the question of why one of the smaller buildings, World Trade Center 7, collapsed in the early evening of Sept. 11, when no plane hit that building. He later mused that the fall of the towers had to have been the result of a controlled demolition.
Barrett eventually concluded that the attacks were intended as a spark to rally the support of the American people behind war in the Middle East.
As Barrett sunk deeper into the "9/11 truth movement," founding the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth, he was also finishing his UW dissertation. Schueb, his dissertation adviser, said he had no idea that Barrett was involved in the movement until he saw Barrett speaking on Library Mall.
The galvanizing moment, Barrett said, came when he invited Griffin, the author, to speak at UW. About 450 people attended the speech at Bascom Hall in April 2005, and it was rebroadcast on C-SPAN. The broadcast and publicity around the event attracted people from around the world to Barrett's cause, helping make the alliance a leader in the movement, with about 1,000 supporters.
During the speech, Griffin made the case that it was implausible the Pentagon could be hit by an airplane, since it is "surely the best defended building on the planet." The U.S. military has the best radar systems in the world and "does not miss anything occurring in North American airspace," he added.
In recent weeks, politicians have sought Barrett's ouster as a University of Wisconsin-Madison lecturer on Islam in an elective, four-credit course. Provost Patrick Farrell last week reaffirmed the university's offer for him to teach a class this fall, citing the university's tradition of academic freedom.
Barrett, who has taught folklore at UW-Madison and Islam at Edgewood College, says he may apply for a tenure-track position at UW-Madison, if the right job becomes available.
Now that he's famous, Barrett's views have many people calling him crazy, but Leder, his old friend, insists that he is not.
"Kevin has always explored," Leder said. "He's never taken anything at face value."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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