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You know that feeling people get when they drive past a car accident? It’s clear that the wreckage is terrifying, but they can’t bring themselves to look away. That’s how I felt wandering into DePaul University’s Cortelyou Commons on a rainy Chicago night in mid-October to attend “War With Iran?” Organized by the DePaul Conservative Alliance (DCA), this panel presentation kicked off the university’s opening contribution to Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week (IFAW), a nationwide campaign sponsored by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. For some masochistic reason, I had to see this wingnut carnival for myself.
To describe the evening’s panelists as wacky would be an understatement. Amir Abbas Fakhravar is a self-proclaimed “Iranian student dissident leader,” who has been embraced by neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen as an authority on the Iranian regime’s ruthlessness. Their support for him comes in spite of – perhaps because of – his dubious biography and reputation as an opportunist. In fact, Iranian journalists, student activists and former inmates told Mother Jones’ Laura Rozen that Iranian police arrested Fakhravar for a nonpolitical crime and that he took on the identity of a political prisoner once behind bars. When I emailed Ali Moazzami – a former editor at Shargh, a popular liberal newspaper in Iran that the regime shut down in August – for his opinion of Fakhravar, he replied, in all caps, “NOT ANY IMPORTANT [STUDENT] GROUP TAKES HIM SERIOUSLY.”
Next to Fakhravar sat Robert Spencer, the founder and director of the website Jihad Watch and the author of six books that blame the teachings and practice of Islam for producing Islamic terrorism.
For those in the audience who came to the panel looking to be offended (I’d guess 60 percent), Spencer did not disappoint. He chastised the left for its inability to hold discussions without “violent intransigence and smears.” He ranted about the obstinately violent nature of Islam. He bullied the first questioner, forcing the student to define neoconservatism on the spot. And he suggested that people protesting his writing were “abetting in the persecution” of Muslims.
When someone asked an insightful question about how best to deal with inflexible ideologues, he ducked it. My favorite quirk was Spencer’s insistence on quoting – four times – a line from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany: “To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death.” He neglected to share that during this talk the Pope also said: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.”
Fakhravar was hardly better. He recounted the treatment he was subjected to in Iran, abuses that everyone in the room could agree were heinous. Then he suggested America cannot negotiate constructively with Iranian leaders because the regime has already declared war by killing our soldiers in Iraq. With that, his testimony devolved into propaganda for the current war in Iraq and a future war in Iran.
Fakhravar maintained that the Iraq War had weakened terrorism abroad. He slammed the “academic view” of Professor Scott Hibbard, who was a third panelist, for his lack of “realism” and belittled a student who suggested that such testimony could be used to lay the groundwork for a U.S. invasion.
Every dodge or denigrating insinuation from Spencer and Fakhravar riled the offended, emotional and self-righteous student activists in attendance. On multiple occasions, DCA members wrestled the microphone from the grip of a loudly indignant protester, who had thus rendered his or her potentially poignant question worthless. One student overshot his 30-second time limit and was escorted out of the room by two burly men, neither of whom seemed interested in American foreign policy. And political devotees from both sides of the spectrum booed and hissed every critical challenge.
Spencer and Fakhravar’s DePaul visit was not an anomalous event. On the same day, students across the country kicked off IFAW, the Horowitz-led effort to confront “two big ideas of the Academic Left.” First, that Bush created the war on terror. And, second, that global warming is a larger risk than Islamic terrorism.
“We think that radical Islamic terrorism is the greatest threat that America and other Western nations are facing,” says Mick Paskiewicz, a DePaul sophomore and vice president of DCA, a student group described as “a non-partisan organization that promotes all flavors of conservatism.”
“What we hoped to do was clarify what that threat is and where it’s coming from,” says Paskiewicz.
Modeled after tactics of the ’60s anti-war movement, to which the onetime-Maoist-turned-neoconservative Horowitz is no stranger, conservatives on more than 100 campuses organized a five-day binge of demonstrations, speaking engagements and sit-ins. Many of the workshops focused on the persecution of Islamic women, an issue on which Horowitz and his comrades believe the academy is resolutely silent. But their criticism ignores loads of academic research examining the treatment of women in Muslim nations, like Riffat Hassan’s studies of Pakistani honor killings at the University of Louisville and Abdullahi An-Naim’s work on religion and human rights at Emory University, to name two.
Such pesky evidence didn’t stop right-wing commentator Ann Coulter and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum – heroes of feminists everywhere – from making their pitch at several colleges. The Young Americans for Freedom chapter at Michigan State University upped the ante, inviting British neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Nick Griffin to East Lansing. Elsewhere, students showed documentaries about “the Islamo-Fascist crusade against America,” and passed out pamphlets like “The Islamic Mein Kampf” and “Jimmy Carter’s War Against the Jews.”
To its credit, the DCA tried to foster a more amicable atmosphere by promoting the week’s events under the less-controversial banner “Terrorism Awareness Week.” It also offered Hibbard a chance to present a dissenting opinion, which he used to eloquently downplay ideology in favor of an understanding of U.S.-Iranian tension through the broader lens of regional power and control of natural resources. But giving Fakhravar and Spencer such a prominent platform – and the vast majority of speaking time – legitimized their fringe positions and invalidated the students’ attempt to raise consciousness about the dangers of terrorism.
If awareness was, in fact, the intention, the DCA and its chosen speakers could have analyzed a politically and religiously divided Muslim world. They could have questioned how, if Islam is inherently violent, nearly 1.5 billion people study and worship the religion peacefully. They could have considered Middle Eastern tensions pragmatically, focusing less on religious fundamentalism and more on the incentives that push countries like Iran toward nuclear enrichment. They could have studied how Western imperialism – and, more recently, American involvement – helped radicalize Muslim jihadists. Hell, they could have scrutinized Horowitz’s motivation for using the term “Islamo-Fascism” – an ahistorical, over-generalized neologism that alienates potential allies.
But IFAW does not exist to promote the exchange of ideas. Rather, it creates a facile dichotomy between Good and Evil, exemplified by Horowitz’s petition drive designed to force students and faculty “to declare their allegiances: either to fighting our terrorist adversaries or failing to take action to stop our enemies.” This intensifies fear and Muslim xenophobia, both of which are tools in the neoconservative strategy to build public and legislative support for imperial actions. And when members of the left protest these efforts, the right paints a caricature of them as naive and weak, lacking the fortitude to ignore the “PC police” and smoke those terrorists out of their holes.
IFAW deliberately blurs the diversity of Muslim identity and blocks the intellectual dialogue folks like Spencer purport to seek. No wonder one-third of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in 9/11, according to a September New York Times/CBS News poll.
I didn’t learn a great deal about Salafists or jihadists during IFAW, but I did take away a message central to the evening’s discussion. “If you’re not offended four or more times a day on campus,” DCA President Nicholas Hahn III warned the audience, “you should probably ask for your money back.”
That statement reveals how conservatives view the role of higher education. It is not an impassive search to deepen, broaden, and complicate our understanding of the world, but a commodity that should titillate or anger. And that makes sense: Calm, rational people do not rush to join irrational demagogues – at home and abroad – who beckon us toward never-ending war.
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