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The Culture War Descends on Columbia | The Nation

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The Culture War Descends on Columbia

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In the past few years, the students and faculty of Columbia University have found themselves in the midst of a culture war. They've seen their Middle East Studies department targeted as "anti-Israel" by one right-wing organization, the David Project. Two assistant professors, Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu El-Haj, were publicly smeared by another right-wing outfit, Campus Watch, as they underwent tenure review (see "The New McCarthyism" by Larry Cohler-Esses). And at the start of this school year their own president, Lee Bollinger, seemed to pander to this right-wing pressure by slamming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the name of "the modern civilized world."

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Esther Kaplan
Esther Kaplan is investigative editor at The Nation Institute, and author of With God on Their Side: George Bush and...

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Three New Orleans police officers and two former officers were indicted Friday in the shooting death of Henry Glover, an African-American resident of New Orleans who bled to death while in police custody in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck. The Nation broke the story of his suspicious death last year.

The global press explodes in outrage, but the paper of record turns, as usual, to those it considers "reliable sources"—Israeli officials—while CNN experts justify the violence.

This week they've got David Horowitz, of the modestly named David Horowitz Freedom Center, best known in recent years for his ads in campus papers opposing slavery reparations, in which he argued that there is no evidence that the legacy of slavery has harmed any living African-American and demanded "the gratitude of black America" for the white Christians who "created" the antislavery movement. Now he's here to teach them about "Islamofascism."

His "Islamofascism Awareness Week" descended this week on dozens of college campuses across the country (he claims more than 100) with vigils here, sit-ins there and scattered forums featuring "aware" individuals such as former Senator Rick Santorum. But Columbia has been showered with special largesse: an entire week of activities, kicked off by a candlelight vigil on Monday, where a dozen or so College Republicans remembered "the untold millions who suffer under tyrannical Islamic regimes" and closing on Friday at noon with a speech by Horowitz himself (Columbia College class of '59).

"I had thought, probably stupidly, that the David Project had accomplished its purpose when they hit us so hard a few years ago," says Bruce Robbins, a professor of English and an organizer of a recent initiative to end Columbia's investment in companies that do business with the Israeli military. "But our academic freedom has not been extremely well defended in the past, so we've been shown to be rather vulnerable in that way."

At Wednesday night's Oppression Panel, some eighty students and assorted gadflies had the chance to see a self-satisfied panel of Ibn Warraq (Why I Am Not a Muslim), Phyllis Chesler (The Death of Feminism; The New-Anti-Semitism) and the American Enterprise Institute's Christina Hoff Sommers (Who Stole Feminism?) apply Horowitz's patented PC-bashing technique. "I encourage [conservatives] to use the language that the left has deployed so effectively in behalf of its own agendas," he wrote in 2003. "Radical professors have created a 'hostile learning environment' for conservative students. There is a lack of 'intellectual diversity' on college faculties and in academic classrooms. The conservative viewpoint is 'under-represented.'"

Thus we had Warraq telling us that it was Edward Said, by means of his book Orientalism, who "encouraged Islamic fundamentalism" by teaching "an entire generation the art of self-pity." It was Said--not, say, Campus Watch, with its hit list of faculty labeled as apologists for suicide bombings and militant Islam--who created a "climate of fear in academia" and whose "aggressive tone" was tantamount to "academic terrorism." We had Chesler declaiming perversely that the right to free speech "belongs also to those of us who are pro-American and pro-Israel, and not only to those who demonize the West." College campuses, she said, have been "Stalinized," "Palestinized." And we had Becky Dunnan, class of '08, spokesperson for the Columbia University College Republicans, sponsors of the event, gamely tell a reporter, "We really have to take back academic freedom for the minority viewpoint on campus--and that's the conservative view."

Of course, as Elizabeth Castelli, chair of Barnard's religion department, said to me before the festivities, Islamofascim Awareness Week is "not about academic freedom at all." She calls Islamofascism a "made-up term" designed to "close off debate, impose a particular position and set of arguments, and invite the harassment of individuals who hold alternative positions. It casts the world situation in a clash-of-civilizations mode--and places any critic in the position of being anti-Western, or even treasonous."

That these self-annointed opponents of Islamofascism claim to speak on behalf of women, gay people and Jews only deepens the Horowitzian irony. Chesler, bravely surmounting the constraints on her speech (the chief one being, as far as I could tell, that Barnard's women's studies department had declined to co-sponsor the panel), sounded an alarm against an "epidemic of homosexual pederasty in the Muslim world," called for a Jewish right of return to "Judenrein" Arab states and warned that if the jihadists win, they'll impose a Muslim caliphate on the United States and we will all become veiled "sex slaves." This, she said, would be "the end of civilization as we know it." Is it mere coincidence that her words echo exactly the phrase that conservative evangelical deployers of the term "Islamofascism," such as Family Research Council founder Gary Bauer, have used to characterize the threat of gay marriage? Homosexuality, as Castelli points out, has become both a marker of the destruction of our way of life and, in our battle against Islamofascism, a stand-in for Western civilization itself.

It would all be a lot funnier if it weren't for the fact that Horowitz's campus experiment is serving the cause of a larger ideological campaign to expand the "war on terror." "Islamofascism," notes David Judd, Columbia class of '08, "[is] a term of demonization invented so we can justify attacking almost any country in the Middle East." Texas pastor John Hagee deployed the term "Islamofascism" in July when he brought some 4,000 members of his new Christian Zionist organization to Washington to lobby hundreds of members of Congress for militant support for Israel--and military action against Iran. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee pulled the phrase out just last week in the Republican presidential debate, where he called Islamofascism "the greatest threat this country's ever faced." "We've got an enemy that wants to kill every last one of us," he went on. "We cannot be soft. We must be strong." And in an e-mail alert to his followers last week, Bauer declared "Islamofascism" a core "values issue."

Even inside the elite precincts of Columbia's campus, the term seems to have stirred up some bellicosity. Judd, a member of Columbia Coalition Against the War, points out that in the weeks leading up to Horowitz's "awareness week," messages of hate cropped up in graffiti on campus--a swastika in one location; "towel head" in another--and a noose appeared on the office door of an African-American professor. Mahira Chishty, a graduate student in the School of Social Work and a practicing Muslim, says she's felt unsafe in recent days. "There have been insinuations in my direction that I can say are the result of the divisive climate on campus," she says. "One student came right up to me and said, 'Happy Islamofascism Week!' For a split second I thought, 'OK, I should go back to my room now.'"

Chishty and Judd have helped to organize a Friday morning protest of Islamofascism Awareness Week, and the Columbia University College Democrats planned an alternative forum to educate students more fully about Islam, set for Friday at noon--the exact time when Horowitz was scheduled to speak.

But is it up to students themselves to counter Horowitz and Co.'s attacks on academic freedom? Robbins doesn't think so. "What we need when untenured faculty are targeted by conservative activists or public officials," he says, "is for the administration to back people up."

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