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.
The UA responded. It suspended Paradise Wednesday from his administrative duties pending further review. He remains a professor at $114,000 a year, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported, but he won’t be paid his $28,000 for additional administrative work for the time being. Legislators were gearing up.
— Bob Ballinger (@Bob_Ballinger) April 30, 2017
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.
The decision to disinvite a participant for his or her views is not reflective of the values and practices of our institution. The decision, made without informing leadership, has resulted in the director’s responsibilities for administrative and operational control being suspended pending an internal review focused on the circumstances that led to this decision.
We believe that the cancellation was an isolated incident and not indicative of a broader approach toward one ideological viewpoint. However, in an abundance of caution, we are actively working to reinforce an inclusive approach to special events with the goal of maintaining an environment where a diversity of ideas is welcomed.
Here’s a Chesler Tweet on April 27.
— Phyllis Chesler (@Phyllischesler) April 27, 2017
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.”
“I think that if it had been an anti-Semitic speaker or a speaker who was known for Anti-black stereotypes, there would be no question in the minds of the relevant programs and departments that they would not want their money sponsoring such a speaker. I think even liberals, though, falter when it comes to anti-Muslim hate, because somewhere in the back of their heads, they’re going, ‘well, it’s kinda true. They’re pretty terroristic and violent and violent toward women.’ They would not falter in understanding the limitations of free speech and the promotion of anti-Semitic or anti-black racist discourse, there is a faltering when it comes to anti-Muslim discourse.”
“It seems like a no-brainer, the idea of equal rights for everyone and not promoting hate of any group. But in every era, there’s an exception that’s rationalized.”
“We were modeling for our students refusing complacency about promoting a speaker that would be utilizing broad smears and sensationalism, and stereotypes, rather than promoting serious scholarship. The person in question has no credentials as a Middle East Studies scholar or an Islamic Studies scholar. Credentials in other fields, but not that. What we’re here to promote is scholarly discourse.”
“The other thing is that we didn’t actually ask for her to be canceled. What I asked for initially before we had the collective letter, was that a response speaker be asked to join. We were told it’s too late to change the logistics and that’s going to be too difficult and so on. What we had also asked for was the withdrawal of [UA’s King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies] money for that, where the law school, which were the ones who invited her, would be responsible for footing the bill.”
“What message would we be sending to students if we were promoting the opposite of responsible scholarship?” “[Cancelling the talk] was not what we had asked for. That initiative came from elsewhere.”
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, as far as she knew, 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?”
UPDATE II: Mark Rushing, the UA spokesman, provided some additional answers to questions I posed about series of events. They follow:
Yes, the director made the decision to cancel the Skype presentation. He did not consult with campus leadership before making his decision. A few faculty members in the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies (MEST) communicated their concerns to the director in a letter before he made his decision. In the letter, the faculty members did not specifically ask for Dr. Chesler’s Skype presention to be canceled but instead asked that the center not be involved in sponsoring a symposium with this speaker included, that another presenter with differing views should be added, and that a statement be issued and materials made available for symposium attendees.
The director announced his decision to the faculty and staff of MEST on April 9 stating that her past work “does not align with the mission and vision” of the center. At this time, we don’t believe there was an official notice mailed to Dr. Chesler. We are aware of an email sent by Dr. Chesler to the director on April 19, thanking him for his “personal apology on the phone.”
UPDATE: I got a lengthy note late in the day from Ted Swedenborg, making some of the same points Kahf had made, but also explaining why there was resistance to Chesler as a speaker sponsored by the Center. His explanation of their view of her credentials and work in the field is, at a minimum, informative.
It’s a good bit more complicated than the red-hots in the legislature want to let on. But I still see this core problem: Though an academic unit has no obligation — and well might want to resist — to sponsor campus speakers it believes unqualified in a subject, that decision probably should be made in advance of an invitation. Even then, I have some inclination to side with even bringing in the David Irvings of the world on occasion and challenge them.