On Monday evening, I attended the event “Confessions of a Muslim Dissident” featuring Irshad Manji, the author of the top-selling book “The Trouble with Islam.”
To the casual observer, this event aimed to highlight the courage of a feminist Muslim leader in standing up against the anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic elements of her faith and reforming her religion in the face of widespread (and sometimes violent) opposition. However, if one scratches slowly beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that this event was consciously planned and executed to bash an entire faith as a means of scoring political points.
The motivations of the event’s organizational sponsors emphasize this sad reality. Although Manji boasted having a wide array of co-sponsors in her speech, the organization Manji’s publicist contacted originally to host the event was Hillel, the major Jewish organization on campus. According to most sources, Hillel funded the majority of this event, coordinated logistical planning and only sought other co-sponsorships after the event had been planned.
Hillel’s mission statement outlines the ambitious goal of “provid[ing] a connection to Jewish life” and one of the major Jewish co-sponsors of this event Chabad defines its primary objective as “convey[ing] a compelling, rich, and meaningful Judaism that will inspire all.”
These objectives immediately call into question what interest these organizations had in hosting this event and describing the necessity for a reformation of Islam. These groups serve important roles on campus and should focus on the wonderful missions they outline on their Web sites.
If the genuine aim of the event was to foster discussion about Islam, one would assume that the hosting organizations would notify and coordinate the event with campus Muslim organizations, who dedicate themselves to exactly that goal. Yet, neither the Islamic Society of Stanford University nor the Muslim Student Awareness Network was informed about the event until last Monday (long after the event was scheduled). As an organization that itself represents a religious community, Hillel has a unique responsibility to maintain respect for other religious communities and not host events aimed at calling for reform in another?s religion. By hosting such a controversial event without consulting the targeted group, the event served to create polarization, and not dialogue.
Moreover, Manji’s tone and subtle rhetorical insinuations paint the picture of an outdated, intolerant Islamic faith. Without a scholarly background in Islam and with only her personal experience to guide her, Manji makes many unwarranted assertions about “her faith” in a sarcastic, cynical manner without any basis in textual scripture. Although she extensively praised Islamic history and tradition, she made these points in order to criticize the Islamic faith as it is practiced today.
To the resounding cheers of a largely non-Stanford audience, Manji suggested that Muslims today do not engage in any independent thought, believe in a vast worldwide “Jewish Conspiracy,” support slavery and can only exist in intolerant, closed societies. By emphasizing her “heroism’ in standing up to institutional Islam, she further emphasized the message of a backwards culture in many Muslim countries. Her patronizing tone and entertainer-like style deliberately aimed to polarize the Muslims in the audience, who she claimed are governed only by “emotion” and not reason.
Unfortunately, this event is not an isolated incident — it is an extension of an ongoing chain of Islamophobic events targeting Stanford students by Hillel and other Jewish on- and off-campus organizations. Last year, Hillel brought Daniel Pipes, who has publicly stated that there is no harm in resorting to Japanese-style internment camps against Muslims today, to campus to argue that militant Muslims are those Muslims who actually practice their faith.
This year, Jewish organizations brought a professor who argued that Arabs are untrustworthy and worse than the Nazis (Ruth Wisse, who spoke on Oct. 29, 2004), a gay Muslim to talk about the way Muslims abuse gays in their countries (Ali, who spoke on Dec. 1, 2004), and an Arab woman to discuss “the Arab World’s Hatred of America and Israel” (Nonie Darwish, who spoke on Nov. 10, 2004).
Just a few months ago, Hillel hosted fervent racist David Horowitz, who stated in his speech that the anti-war and Muslim organizations on campus are “led by 60 Stalinists and include Muslim pro-terrorist groups” as well as “North Korean Marxist-Leninist groups” (“Horowitz criticizes academia as ‘leftist,’ “ Feb. 2).
These kinds of events serve to create a hostile environment towards Muslims on campus. When Hillel, a fully staffed and housed organization with a nearly $1 million annual operating budget, relentlessly attacks Muslims at Stanford, who lack a single staff person and are comprised only of student leaders operating with a meager $20,000 annual budget, not much can be done to alter the tone of discourse on campus.
In a post-Sept. 11 America where Muslims are frequently targeted for their beliefs and at a time in which Stanford lacks an Islamic Studies Program and fails to offer a basic “Intro to Islam” course, these events combine to create great misconceptions and stereotypes about Muslims at Stanford. The recent breakdown of relations between the Muslim and Jewish communities on campus is truly sad — however, real dialogue cannot take place in the absence of mutual respect for one another’s beliefs and cultures. Monday’s event proved that Hillel has little respect for Muslims.
Sophomore Omar Shakir is co-president of the Coalition for Justice in the Middle East.