by Muslim student Adel Elsholy, endorsed by many ethnic student organizations, defends Wilders’s right to speak at Columbia, while denouncing what he said as hate speech. My comments are inserted in the article.
Wild, wild Wilders
Wilders’ speech, while beginning as a discussion of free discourse, soon devolved into little more than an open, vicious attack on Islam and Muslims, claiming that the ultimate goal of Islam is to conquer the world and forcibly impose itself on the conquered. [LA replies: This is great. Wilders’s opponents—unlike his hosts the College Republicans who reduced the issue to Wilders’s free speech rights—are accurately stating Wilders’s position on Islam. I’m all for this. Let’s have it out.]
By Adel Elsohly
Published Thursday 22 October 2009 05:26pm EST.
This op-ed is supported by the following campus organizations: the African Students Association, Ahimsa, Club Bangla, Club Zamana, the Columbia University College Democrats, Hillel, the Hindu Students Association, the Native American Council, the Organization of Pakistani Students, the Sikh Students Association, the SIPA Arab Student Association, and Turath.
Just over 230 years ago, this great nation was founded upon the most basic of civil liberties. That among these were liberty and freedom was an incredible foresight into the needs of the modern world. So important were these values that they formed the heart of the First Amendment in which our founders wrote, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Without a doubt, the need for freedom of speech in public discourse has never been greater, and as student organizations, we firmly uphold this principle. Therefore, we must commend the Columbia University College Republicans for upholding free speech by inviting Geert Wilders—a man whose freedom to exercise his right to free speech has been limited—to speak.
But Wednesday night’s speech by the Dutch politician was decidedly less about freedom of speech and more about inciting fear within a community. Wilders’ speech, while beginning as a discussion of free discourse, soon devolved into little more than an open, vicious attack on Islam and Muslims, claiming that the ultimate goal of Islam is to conquer the world and forcibly impose itself on the conquered. In addition to referring to Islam as a religion of violence and the “enemy of free speech,” Wilders called for an end to cultural relativism. In short, he would have us all give up not only our right to practice our religions but also our ability to see value in cultures that do not adhere to his perspective. In one fell swoop, Wilders called for Western culture to be the standard by which all other cultures measure themselves. [LA replies: Not true. Wilders was calling for Western culture to preserve its own existence. He was calling on Western society to cease its current process of committing suicide which consists of admitting into itself all other cultures while declaring that these cultures shall have the same importance in Western society as Western culture.] By demanding that residents of Western societies simply assimilate, Wilders only contradicts his ultimate goal of providing civil liberties and freedoms to those who live under his jurisdiction. [He’s saying that to expect immigrants to assimilate into the host culture is an act of hatred. He’s saying that civil liberties and freedoms means the freedom not to assimilate, and that therefore to require assimilation as the condition of admission is to violate people’s civil libertries. He’s saying that Islam should have equal recognition in Western society along with Western culture, Western standards, Western norms. Like the College Republicans, this student claims to be standing only for rights, but the rights he demands have a substantive result that no one wants to discuss: the steady spread of Islam and Islamic law in the West.]
Maintaining that he is a friend to Muslims, Wilders claimed during his speech that his central goal in demonizing Islam was to urge everyone to stand up against the religion and not the practitioner. However, by necessity, this can only mean standing up against the people, since without followers an ideology has no need to be opposed. It was at this point that the line between freedom of speech and hate speech intent on inciting fear of Islam and Muslims within the greater community was crossed. [LA replies: I think it was clear from Wilders’s speech that Muslims are welcome to stay in the Netherlands, insofar as they accept Dutch society and culture. But insofar as they want to spread Islamic law, they are not welcome. In effect, Wilders was saying that any seriously observant Muslim, meaning a Muslim who follows the sharia law, is not welcome. But this is not an expression of hate. It is a recognition of the fact that Islam is a threat to all non-Muslim societies. Indeed Muslims are commanded by their god and their law to subdue all non-Muslim societies. I have said many times that I have no problem with Muslims practicing sharia law in their own countries. But insofar as they are seeking to practice sharia in my country, they are a threat to my country. Again, to say that Islam is a threat to my country is not hate; it’s a fact of reality, stated and commanded by Islam’s own authoritative texts.]
Later, during the Q&A session, a young lady, who informed us that she grew up in Europe, made the striking observation that his tone and discourse against Islam were eerily similar to the sentiments expressed in pre-1940s Germany. Indeed, strong parallels can be drawn not only to the hate speech that resulted in World War II, but also to the pre-1920s climate of white supremacy in the U.S. and the early 1990s Hutu Power that ended in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
Though it is easy to criticize and ridicule, it is decidedly more difficult to act to bring about a change. As such, we would be irresponsible, as the voices and people that will shape our world tomorrow, if we did not stand up against hate speech, irrespective of the target. Herein, we can be proud of our Columbia community for not only embracing freedom of speech but also for peacefully standing up against demonizing hatred. Today, we challenge everyone to come together as a greater community to realize that we have more to gain from understanding and supporting each other than we do from creating divides and rifts. Ali ibn abi Talib, the cousin and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, said, “A person is either your brother in faith or your equal in humanity.” Today we call on everyone, not as Muslims, members of a cultural group or a University, but as humans, to ask him- or herself with all sincerity: Don’t we all deserve freedom from fear?