On the evening of September 15, the writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali addressed a crowd of more than three hundred at Yale University. It was notable for the event to have occurred at all. In the past decade the Somali-born Hirsi Ali has established herself as an unapologetic critic of radical Islam and the premier voice for the rights of women in Muslim countries. The week prior to her Yale address, a group of Yale’s Muslim students who took offense at Hirsi Ali’s perspective had demanded that her host—the university’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program—rescind her invitation, limit the scope of her talk, or include a pro-Islamic scholar at the podium to correct her views. When the demand was rebuffed, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) went to work and issued a public petition denouncing Hirsi Ali as a purveyor of “hate speech,” “unprotected libel,” and “slander.” That, too, did not succeed in keeping Hirsi Ali away.
Not letting her small triumph go to waste, Hirsi Ali closed her lecture with a question directed toward the MSA: “Why do you find energy, resources, time, and solidarity to silence the reformers and dissidents of Islam?” The answer: because such efforts are usually successful.
Hirsi Ali knows this only too well. She has long been the primary target of a coordinated and sustained national Muslim-based campaign to hush the critics of radical Islam. In April, Brandeis University, under pressure from the school’s MSA and a pseudo-civil-rights organization called the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), revoked its decision to award her an honorary degree.
The Islamic censorship machine, with CAIR frequently at the controls, employs a two-pronged strategy that cleverly panders to the emotional and intellectual soft spots of the multicultural left: First, it links its targets to “hate speech,” thereby delegitimizing their right of free expression. Second, it makes common cause with Jewish groups, some shills, willing to join the call for censorship. This past spring, when news broke that Hirsi Ali was scheduled to appear at Brandeis’s upcoming graduation ceremonies, the gears began to turn. One of the first to hype the story was Richard Silverstein, who maintains the anti-Israel, conspiracy-theorist blog with the seemingly innocuous title “Tikun Olam.” CAIR would later thank Silverstein by name for his efforts. Using social media, the Islamic organization mobilized supporters around the country to contact the school’s administration, and it issued press releases condemning Hirsi Ali. Eighty-seven members of the school’s faculty, including nine in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department, one of whom is a senior lecturer of Hebrew, penned an open letter urging the institution “to select another individual.” Shortly thereafter, Brandeis’s president, Frederick Lawrence, afraid of being labeled an Islamophobe, disinvited Hirsi Ali. CAIR’s crucial role in the scandal was evident in Lawrence’s statement to the Brandeis community: “Outside groups,” Lawrence claimed, “played no role in the ultimate decision.” It was a classic case of a strong protestation of innocence that implied guilt.
During its Brandeis victory lap, CAIR issued a press release specifically claiming Jewish support for censorship and praising “the many Jewish activists and academics who joined in demanding that Brandeis University withdraw its invitation to [Hirsi] Ali.” This claim, sadly, was true. Commenting on Lawrence’s decision just two days later, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism and Brandeis alumnus Rabbi Eric Yoffie proclaimed that his alma mater “got it right.”
CAIR portrays itself as an ethnic civil-rights organization in the vein of the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP. Its mission statement boasts of efforts to “enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” The organization repeatedly declares a firm allegiance to the values of the Constitution, in particular free expression, and boasts of its close relationship with the government.
Yet beyond its claims of legitimate civil-rights action lie a murky past, disturbing connections to terrorism, and an eagerness to silence speech. CAIR was linked to the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charitable organization the federal government successfully prosecuted as a front for Hamas. The founder of CAIR’s Dallas chapter, Ghassan Elashi, is currently serving a 65-year sentence in connection with that case. A CAIR civil-rights coordinator was sentenced to 20 years in jail for planning terrorist activities on American soil. And one of CAIR’s board members, Esam Omeish, publicly resigned his seat on a Virginia state commission on immigration after videos emerged of him praising Palestinian jihad during the second intifada. (Esam’s daughter, Abrar Omeish, led the Yale MSA protests against Hirsi Ali.) Reputable politicians, including Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Dick Durbin, have made consistent note of CAIR’s ties to terrorism.
CAIR rejects any attempt to criticize its past, its leadership, or its members as “guilt by association” and McCarthyesque scaremongering. But CAIR itself frequently uses McCarthyesque tactics in an effort to silence anyone critical of Islam.
“Of course, most elementary school students will tell you that hate speech is not to be confused with free speech.” So wrote Safaa Ibrahim, executive director of CAIR’s San Francisco chapter. Distinguishing speech as “hateful” is a key element of the organization’s blueprint for silencing its opponents. The petition to revoke Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree from Brandeis, for instance, labeled her accomplishments as “pure hate speech.” And, according to a leader of the Yale Muslim Students Association, Hirsi Ali merited censorship because her talk was “hate speech, [which] under the law would be classified as libel or slander and is not protected by the First Amendment.”
But CAIR and its devotees in Muslim Students Associations are wrong on this legal distinction: American constitutional law does not discriminate between hateful remarks and other kinds of speech. Certain crimes can be classified as “hate crimes,” but speech alone is not a crime. (The chief exception is the direct incitement to violence, such as the proverbial rabble-rouser ordering a crowd to “lynch that man.”) Thus, in 2011, eight justices on the Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church possessed the right to picket military funerals shouting “God hates fags,” one of the more hate-filled public statements in recent memory.
As a rhetorical matter, however, CAIR’s use of the term “hate speech” is effective. The charge of “hate” plays into two biases of liberal university communities: the long-established desire for racial and religious harmony, and the more recent ideological assertion that words have so much power to traumatize that they must be regulated.
As a society, we associate “hate speech” with the worst virulent slurs and the most racist canards—a classification, in short, reserved for a select few. But CAIR applies the label indiscriminately as a method of delegitimizing anyone who challenges its views. In doing so, the organization seeks to hijack the moral mantle of established civil-rights groups and defame reasoned critics of Islam as bigots. Indeed, in statements regarding Hirsi Ali’s appearance at Brandeis, CAIR deemed Hirsi Ali “equivalent” to “white supremacists and anti-Semites.”
The Islamic organization is not alone in deploying the “hate speech” accusation, which became popular in the late 1980s. The Anti-Defamation League, for instance, makes frequent use of the phrase and released a guide in 2013 on how to combat hate speech on the Web. Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center not only embraces the term “hate speech” but also defines a broader lexicon of “hate” by maintaining a list of 939 active “hate groups” across America. In the SPLC’s words, these organizations—from the Nation of Islam to the Ku Klux Klan—hold “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
CAIR’s wanton application of “hate speech” to critics of radical Islam is, in part, an unintended consequence of the ADL’s frequent use of the term. In eschewing more specific language to describe bigotry, such as “anti-Semitism” or “racism,” in favor of the universally applicable term “hate speech,” the ADL has pushed the view that all prejudice is rooted in one evil: hate. This belief encourages other minority groups, such as African Americans, to see discrimination against Jews, for instance, as identical to prejudice against blacks. Unfortunately, the inherent vagueness of the term “hate speech” makes it easy for the Islamic censorship apparatus to deploy the phrase for its own purposes.
When CAIR slanders Hirsi Ali’s remarks as “hate speech,” she and her supporters are immediately put on the defensive. In a country where racism is the original sin, the onus falls on the accused to prove innocence, not on the accuser to substantiate guilt. Worse, on college campuses that prize “diversity” above all else, even the hint of racial intolerance is critically damaging—regardless of what further investigation reveals. University administrators face an unappealing choice: Disinvite Hirsi Ali or become an enemy of the dominant ethos of multiculturalism by allowing a bigot into the community. The former option is the path of least resistance.
At Yale, in fact, the MSA’s tactic of branding Hirsi Ali’s talk as “hate speech” proved somewhat effective, garnering the support of the university’s chaplain, Sharon Kugler. A liberal lay Catholic, Kugler released a joint statement with the university’s coordinator for Muslim life, Omer Bajwa, that declared a “commitment to free expression” in one sentence and then, in the next, registered a deep concern for “Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s long record of disparaging, and arguably hateful, comments about Muslims and Islam.” The statement concluded by supporting the MSA’s demand for the addition of “a scholarly voice to create a more nuanced conversation.” Such moral and intellectual muddle is commonplace on American campuses.
It is not possible to understand the influence of “hate speech” accusations without delving into the hyper-ideologized nature of the modern university. In recent years, a trend has emerged that seeks to suppress certain ideas on campuses because those ideas are considered traumatic to minority groups. The most well-known manifestation of this trend is the “trigger warnings” movement, which attempts to force university instructors to warn students when course material might be emotionally damaging. The syllabus for a course in which one reads Death of Salesman, for example, might bear a trigger warning for suicide. A literature seminar on Toni Morrison would caution students about a rape scene in The Bluest Eye, and so on.
Taken in the most favorable light, these warnings could protect trauma victims from reliving their experiences through a book. But the runaway proliferation of triggers shows the true intention of the warnings: to regulate ideas some find uncomfortable or offensive. Thus, in the spring, Oberlin College admonished its faculty “to be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” Oberlin later removed its guidelines regarding trigger warnings from its website, presumably after it came under criticism. The mantra “words harm,” however, persists throughout academia.
CAIR and Muslim Students Associations have adopted the language of trigger warnings to substantiate their calls for censorship. The Yale MSA petition against Hirsi Ali is an explicit example, noting, “We cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community.” Whenever CAIR labels Hirsi Ali and others as “hurtful” or “hateful,” the organization taps into an ideology in which objectionable ideas damage university students. Their conclusion is to bar Hirsi Ali from campus, extending the substance of trigger warnings beyond the classroom.
The vagueness of the notion of “hate speech” has helped CAIR implement the second prong of its censorship apparatus: the participation of suspect Jewish groups or individuals in legitimizing the shutdown of speech. If Jewish groups approve of the silencing of a speaker, then the speaker must be a bigot, not just a political critic of radical Islam. And because Jews and Muslims are frequently perceived as political opponents, such support adds formidable weight to the claims of bigotry.
The Brandeis incident is representative of CAIR’s pattern of seeking Jewish cover. The clearest example came in 2013, when the organization appointed Jacob Bender, a documentary filmmaker and self-described “interfatih consultant,” to lead its Philadelphia office. In a press release declaring Bender “the first Jew to lead [a] chapter of CAIR,” the group extolled his religion as his chief—if not only—qualification for the job. Bender’s staunch anti-Zionism was evident in a fawning New York Times profile that ran shortly after the conclusion of the recent Gaza conflict. Bender admitted that he rejects the “organized Jewish community because I insist on washing Israel’s dirty laundry.”
When CAIR’s Safaa Ibrahim sought to silence radio talk-show host Michael Savage in 2008, Ibrahim specifically highlighted Rabbi Haim Beliak as an ideological comrade. The Forward describes Beliak as “well-known” in Los Angeles for “left-wing Jewish peace causes.” Admittedly, unlike Hirsi Ali, Savage often proffers nakedly—indeed preposterously—deplorable views. Nevertheless, CAIR’s specific attention to Rabbi Beliak is illustrative of the organization’s modus operandi.
In these cases, the Islamic censorship apparatus found Jews on the far left of the political spectrum and held them out—either explicitly or by insinuation—as representatives of mainstream American Jewish thought. But in the Yale case, claims of Jewish support in the effort to silence Hirsi Ali came under scrutiny. In its initial release, the MSA petition to silence Hirsi Ali included a number of the Jewish institutions on campus as signatories, chief among them the Slifka Center (Yale’s Hillel) and Yale Friends of Israel (a student advocacy group). Slifka occupied a prime location on the petition as signatory number four. But over the next few days, according to numerous student accounts, members of Yale’s Jewish community scrambled to identify who signed the letter on behalf of these organizations. After pressure, the MSA publicly removed the Jewish groups (and others) from the list and issued a half-hearted apology in the school’s newspaper that admitted no real wrongdoing. “Because of the countless emails we had been receiving, we [the MSA] may have miscommunicated with some groups that had provided tentative signature,” the statement claimed. “It was very difficult and we ask that our fellow Yalies understand that.”
The absence of vocal, verifiable Jewish support probably contributed to the failure of the intimidation effort at Yale. It is heartening that Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke to an overflowing auditorium and received not one, but two standing ovations. More than 200 students were turned away for lack of space, and not a single protestor was in sight.
There are other useful lessons in the Yale example. The university’s president, Peter Salovey, had serendipitously delivered a speech at the start of the academic year explicitly condemning incidents of censorship on college campuses, including the Brandeis affair. Salovey’s public and firm commitment to free expression guaranteed that the university chaplain and others could not unduly pressure the students who invited Hirsi Ali to speak.
Additionally, Hirsi Ali’s host—the Buckley Program, on whose board I sit—was immune to the pressure of the multicultural left. A well-funded student-led group committed to “intellectual diversity” and advised by scholarly titans such as the now retired classics professor Donald Kagan, the Buckley Program can boast students who felt none of the social anxiety to condemn “hate” or to pander to the Muslim Students Association.
Encouraging though it was, this brief victory for free expression at Yale should not obscure the real long-term threat. The apparatus of Islamic censorship, led by CAIR and aided by various MSAs, has enjoyed serial success in silencing those who speak out against Islamic extremism, and the hospitable climate of the multicultural campus means that this menace to free speech will continue to plague us for the foreseeable future.