Silencing Debate at Temple · 22 October 2009

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Even before Dutch politician Geert Wilders delivered his address at Temple University this week, in which he warned students that a “stealth jihad” was stifling discussion of radical Islam, student groups and Temple faculty administrators had collaborated to confirm the urgency of his message that free speech is under assault in modern academia.

Indeed, Wilders’s speech, which was part of the Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week campaign sponsored by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, almost didn’t take place. Although Wilders was invited to Temple by a student group, Temple University Purpose, other student groups tried to cancel his appearance. Ultimately, they did not succeed. But the difficulty of bringing Wilders to Temple, as well as the abrupt ending to his appearance due to student invective and interruptions, spoke volumes about the severely restricted range of expression on college campuses.

Opposition to Wilders began before he even set foot on campus. But rather than challenge Wilders’s ideas, or even accurately describe them, student groups demanded that they should not even be heard. Thus, the Student Senate at Temple passed a resolution denouncing Wilders for his “intolerable, disgraceful and prejudiced slandering of the Islamic faith” and urged the university to shut down the event. Another student leader, Megan Chialastri of the campus group All Sides, opposed giving Wilders the opportunity to present his side of the argument because that’s “just the way people feel on this campus.” Even the Temple University College Republicans, who initially co-sponsored Wilders’s appearance, in the end joined the chorus insisting that he should not be allowed to have his say.

Behind the scenes, university administrators pushed Temple University Purpose to call off the event. When TUP leader Brittany Walsh objected that Wilders, as an invited guest, was entitled to free speech protections, school officials rejected her appeal on the grounds that, as she put it, “Wilders is not an American citizen and therefore the First Amendment does not apply to him.” (Walsh pointed out that, in the United States, free-speech rights are also afforded to foreigners.)

Spearheading the most vocal part of the opposition to Wilders was the Temple chapter of the Muslim Student Association. The MSA is a creation of Egypt’s extremist Muslim Brotherhood that has given funds to Hamas-tied charities. But that dubious history did not deter the Temple MSA from charging that allowing Wilders to speak at the school was a danger to “the public safety of Muslims.” Revealingly, the MSA also protested Wilders’s appearance because it would not “honor the core principles of Islam.”

Of course, this complaint – that Islam should be specially exempt from criticism – is central to Wilders’s contention that the religion at heart is incompatible with Western legal traditions like free speech. Wilders’s used his 30-minute address on Tuesday to remind students of that point. As an example, he pointed to the Obama administration’s support earlier this month for a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution that would exert a chilling effect on free speech. Backed by Egypt and long supported by Islamic states, the resolution condemns attacks on all religions, though there is little mystery about which religion in particular it is designed to protect. Calling the resolution a “disgrace,” Wilders warned that such appeasement of Islamic mores would signal “the beginning of the end” for Western liberties. Unless Western societies opposed the spread of Islamic extremism, “you might at the end of the day lose your Constitution,” Wilders told students. “Wake up, defend your freedom,” he urged.

Instead, the students chose to shout him down. During a question-and-answer period, Wilders was repeatedly heckled by student agitators who berated him with insults and abuse. One student yelled that Wilders was “a genocide-loving racist clown.” Never mind that Wilders has always expressed support for individual Muslims even as he has opposed fundamentalist Islam – “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam,” Wilders has often said – while calling for Western countries to welcome gay Muslims fleeing persecution in their home countries. Regardless, the students in the audience weren’t interested in hearing Wilders explain his views. For all the pre-event concerns about supposed threats to Muslims, it was Wilders who had to be escorted from Temple’s Anderson Hall with the help of armed security guards and police.

That Wilders was not even allowed to finish his remarks was a sad commentary on the perilous state of campus free speech, observed DHFC president David Horowitz. “I think this [event] demonstrated how difficult it is to be critical of Islam on American college campuses today,” said Horowitz, who was himself recently prevented from speaking at St. Louis University when student groups claimed that his speech would insult Muslims. “These students ought to know that you don’t achieve tolerance by an act of intolerance like trying to keep the campus from hearing Wilders’ ideas. You banish intolerance by letting the light shine, not by creating darkness.” Had Geert Wilders not been forced from the stage, he might have made the same point.