Letters to the Editor 10/22

History of Islamic think tank should be explained

About a year ago, when Judy Genshaft had just taken office here at USF, a friend of mine wanted to know my impressions of her. I had to tell him that I hadn’t been paying attention closely. He said he was concerned about the fact that the State University of New York, the university system Genshaft comes from, seems to have undergone a recent conservative retrenchment. He couldn’t tell whether Genshaft had helped engineer that shift or if she was moving out of the New York State system to get away from it. It appears that we are now seeing her true colors.

I have never watched The O’Reilly Factor and probably never will. It seems to be nothing more than a right wing source of yellow journalism. So I didn’t see the O’Reilly program on which Dr. Al-Arian appeared. I did go to the Web site and read the transcript – nothing beyond what one would expect of recent corporate media pandering to demographic groups that form the basis of their market niche. A lot like WWF Smackdown really, only much shorter. O’Reilly elicited no real information about the Islamic think tank, what its goals were, what it achieved, how many folks it supported, etc. He stuck to stale accusations from the mid-90s, to which Dr. Al-Arian was given no opportunity to respond in detail, much less an opportunity to speak about his views on the current state of things. Hardly listening, the millionaire, “blue-collar” talk show host managed to pin his ethnic opponent before the match even got started.

It’s totally to be expected from corporate media, especially the Fox brand of media, headed up nationally by Roger Ailes, a republican political top and campaign terrorist – remember Willie Horton? But what has been disturbing and puzzling is Genshaft’s response to this matter: the tepid rhetoric of marketing – as if no one speaks for the university unless their discourse has been analyzed for its market impact, as if the real uni-versity voice were a choir-like attempt to emulate God or a superegoic voice of authority, rather than a multi-versity cacophony of racial, pan-national and gender diversity. In which of those two sounds does our safety really lie?

Concern for safety doesn’t require the sacrifice of intellectual and speech values. Not intellectual consideration, but concerns for head counts, if not outright fear-driven conservatism, seem to have become driving factors in the school president’s recent rhetoric. Why no real explanation and discussion of the history of the Islamic think tank? If Genshaft is going to distance the administration from Al-Arian, doesn’t she need to justify her move in detail? No, she wasn’t here at the time of the think tank, but I hope some of the folks in her crew were. Should we assume their attitude toward Al-Arian’s history at USF is reflected in Genshaft’s letter to parents? That letter leaves parents (and us) to assume that Al-Arian is everything O’Reilly insinuates. Its failure to concern itself with his safety is cowardly at worst, timid at best, and sends a clear subtextual message of non-support for his rights. Perhaps the assumption is that the conservative demographic needs appeasing and that the more proactive liberals concerned with freedom of speech can be counted on not to threaten the financial base of the university. Surprisingly, President Bush has gone further in defense of free speech and in combating knee-jerk thug-paranoia than our school president. The issue of free speech was clearly delimited along one of its borders in her remarks concerning local talk radio fear-mongering; but on the border facing Al-Arian, she remained silent about speech rights as she nearly silenced him insofar as the university is concerned. Within and beyond the letter, her refusal to respond to his speech and thought verges on a failure of thought and an ethical lapse. School presidents can’t engage in public discourse with the professoriate? It smacks of marketspeak with its fear of negative reaction, yet the letter pandered to fear, perhaps raising more fear than it quelled. Is Genshaft herself afraid of Al-Arian?

When will Al-Arian be reinstated? When al-Qaida is destroyed? Once humans have evolved beyond terrorism? What has he got to say about the matter? How would he address the concerns and fears of students and parents? The Middle East has an ugly history to which Americans as a culture have not been attentive. Who of any stripe from the Middle East does not know terrorists? Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat both used terrorist tactics – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to folks like them. We lapse into irresponsibility if we fail to listen to what intellectuals like Al-Arian have to say. We can’t ignore corporate media, but this discussion needs more development within our own community and school media.

Is there a need for rank and file Americans to have a deep understanding of Islamic, Arabic and Middle-Eastern cultures? Of course there is – that’s one of the obvious recognitions arising from our current crisis as Americans clear the bookstore shelves of books on the topic. On our campus, it starts by having open, constructive, and com/passionate discussion with people like Al-Arian. In my view, trauma breeds terrorism, and there’s no healing of trauma without compassion based on careful listening. Genshaft’s unfortunate actions lead us away from such approaches. She may as well have gagged Al-Arian. If our goal is to face terrorism and begin to struggle against it, her example fails as a response to him and to the culture his voice comes from.

  • Walter Lewallen is a graduate student in the English department.