“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
A little over a year ago I took to this very forum to criticize the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions. In particular, I challenged many of the arguments made by Vanderbilt professor Colin Dayan who had penned a passionate and well-argued defense of the ASA’s decision. It was my opinion that the boycott only further harmed academic freedom and the support for it, especially among university professors, was misguided.
It goes without saying then that I’m a firm believer in the necessity of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Even with these convictions, I was repulsed when I read Professor Carol Swain’s op-ed which was published in the Tennessean on Thursday. In the piece, which can be found in its entirety here, Professor Swain makes the argument that “Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children”
She continues her attempts to invalidate a religion which claims over one billion adherents by denying its place as part of a universal brotherhood before concluding her piece by calling on the government to discriminate against, target, and profile Islamic organizations:
“Islam has absolutely nothing in common with Christianity, nor is it a worthy part of the brotherhood of man I long felt was characteristic of the Abrahamic religions. … If America is to be safe, it must remove the foxes from the henhouses and institute serious monitoring of Islamic organizations.”
Much can (and has) been said about the offensive nature of her comments as well as the many logical shortcomings that underpin her toxic ideology. One would be justified in pointing out that Professor Swain remained silent when Anders Breivik, a Christian terrorist who had published an Islamophobic, anti-feminist, and “pro-Christian Europe” manifesto, killed seventy-seven people in a set of attacks in the summer of 2011.
In the wake of this tragic event Professor Swain did not call on the government to increase their surveillance of Christian groups within the United States. She didn’t write in to the Tennessean claiming that Christianity was incompatible with the freedoms that we cherish. She didn’t suggest that all Christians should be held responsible. The same is true concerning Swain’s silence regarding the “price-tag attacks” carried out by Jewish fundamentalists or the attacks against Christians and Muslims by Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
In addition to pointing out Professor Swain’s silence on the extremists of all other faiths, one would be justified in reminding her that over the past five years, only two percent of the terror attacks in Europe were carried out by Islamist group according to statistics from Europol. In the United States, that figure is similarly small. FBI statistics show that in the twenty-five year span from 1980 to 2005, only 6% of terror attacks were perpetrated by Muslims.
The logical inconsistencies in Professor Swain’s piece, while many, are not what I’d like to focus on, however. Instead, I’d like to bring to light a comment Professor Swain wrote on her personal Facebook page in response to a student’s comment. She wrote:
“I’m deeply disappointed in students who seek to curtail free speech and academic freedom. I have no tolerance for political correctness. The serious issues affecting our nation need to be debated in balanced forums.”
There is no attempt to curtail your First Amendment rights, no assault on your civil liberties, no secret cabal that wishes to purge our university of academic freedom and differing viewpoints. What you must understand, professor is that our Constitution protects your right to freely express your beliefs and opinions without interference by the government and its agents. It does not, however, give you the ability to express those beliefs with impunity.
Freedom of speech does not mean that your speech is beyond reproach by students and campus organizations who feel threatened not by their fellow Muslim students, but by your hate-filled words. Freedom of speech does not indemnify you from protest and opposition. In fact, it does the exact opposite – it ensures that students, whether it be those that felt personally attacked by your vitriol or those who are simply unwilling to remain voiceless in the face of such splenetic speech, have the right to come together and denounce the statements you’ve made.
As for the issue of academic freedom, it is your very comments which imperil this all important pillar of democratic societies. The very rhetoric you employed in your impassioned attack on Muslims and Muslim culture is the same rhetoric used by those who wish to deny Muslims their personhood and their humanity. Your words, and the additional gravitas and sense of legitimacy which are attached to them by virtue of your stature and position as a professor at Vanderbilt, will invariably (if they haven’t already) be used to stoke the fire of Islamophobia. They lend credence to the backwards concept of Islam as a vicious and violent religion. Ultimately, they jeopardize an already tenuous feeling of safety and inclusion at an academic institution which has so recently come under fire for issues relating to diversity and race relations.
Despite your strong support for academic freedom when it concerns your right to express your beliefs, you wrote in your article that “we must be willing to recognize that dangers of the burqa” and seemed to suggest that abandoning this culturally and religiously significant form of dress should be an “indication of assimilation” which “should be a prerequisite for remaining and advancing in this nation.” This comes in light of the fact that across Europe, religious discrimination and religiously motivated prohibitions on certain forms of dress are endangering the academic freedom of countless Muslim students.
Our community of Middle Tennessee is no stranger to Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim sentiment. In 2007, a local mosque, the Islamic Center in Columbia, was burned to the ground by arsonists. In 2010, the words “not welcome” were spray painted across a sign announcing the mosque’s new home. A year and a half ago, a group of hecklers, organized by the Islamophobic group American Freedom Defense Initiative, launched into applause during a community outreach forum (which they were protesting) when the destruction of the mosque was mentioned. But despite our familiarity with rhetoric which is all too similar to yours, we must stand firm and acknowledge that it has no place in our community which is strengthened rather than harmed by religious and cultural diversity.
Just as you have asked for respect and toleration of diverse views, we ask you to have respect and toleration for diverse peoples and groups. Your letter, rooted in hate and fear, has implications and repercussions which are as damaging as they are far-reaching. Recent events stretching from Ferguson to New York City have laid bare the many divisions that still plague our nation. We’ve seen firsthand that to be Brown or Black in America requires an inordinate amount of courage in the face of great opposition. All I ask is that you don’t lend your name to that opposition.
The opinions expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Vanderbilt Political Review and its affiliates