Category Archives: Ecumenical & Interfaith

Free Speech, Islamophobia & The Murder of Innocents

Free Speech, Islamophobia  & The Murder of Innocents 

About a week ago, the struggle over free speech landed in my email inbox.

I’m mindful of, and disturbed by the steady stream of articles I see decrying the decline of free speech on and around U.S. universities. Many of these come from rightwing pundits; but others come from worried but otherwise progressive observers.

A Carolina memorial to three victims of anti-Muslim violence, February 2015.

I’ve held back from joining the fray, mainly because it’s almost twenty years since I worked on a college campus, and it’s way too easy to succumb to hand-wringing fads and facile generalizations about “kids these days”; to moan about how academia is abandoning rational discourse, and its millennial occupants are all going to hell in a handbasket woven from organic fair trade dried kale.

Perhaps it’s so; but how would I know that? I live near some large campuses, but don’t hang out there. 

Then a week or so ago, an advocacy group I’m part of was asked to sign on to a letter. The missive, written by Manzoor Cheema, for the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia, called for a lecture series in Chapel Hill NC, to be shut down. The letter’s money quote was:

“we urge Extraordinary Ventures to say no to the voices of hatred and bigotry. We request Extraordinary Ventures to cancel Diana West’s upcoming speech and the future lecture series by ICON.”

At this point, for the record: “Extraordinary Ventures”  is a local non-profit that mainly works with youth and adults who have autism; as part of their fundraising, they rent out a sizable community room.

ICON stands for “Issues Confronting Our Nation,” which is a very conservative association that sponsors a lecture series, which uses the Extraordinary Ventures room for the talks. ICON’s lineup of speakers is solidly, some would say rabidly rightwing: climate change deniers, dead-ender opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement, fans of Trumpian curbs on immigration — and denouncers of allegedly massive Islamic infiltration and terrorist-oriented subversion of American society, pushing for sharia and the whole nine yards.

american-betrayal-coverThe protest letter’s particular target was a lecture by Diana West, an author whose major work is American Betrayal, which according to reviewers (I haven’t read it) argues for a drastic reinterpretation of American diplomatic history since World War Two. West asserts that FDR, Eisenhower and other top officials over several decades were essentially tools of the Soviet Union.

I remember this argument, made by the ultra-right John Birch Society in its heyday. Numerous scholars, including some quite conservative, consider it, and West’s book, rubbish. Nevertheless, West uses this theme to insist that the U.S. government is once again being taken over by subversive, deadly aliens, in this case radical Muslims and their repressive, terrorist vanguard.

It was this “Commies then, Muslims now” trope that the letter I was sent wanted to shut down — along with the entire lecture series it was part of.

The basis for the letter’s demand was straightforward:

“Hate speech has real life consequences for marginalized communities. Muslims and immigrants in general have been demonized and dehumanized by the forces of hate. Laws and policies have have been introduced against them, including in North Carolina, as a result of concerted efforts by these forces. Diana West has contributed to the hysteria against Sharia law, which has led to anti-Sharia movement throughout the country, including in North Carolina. NC General Assembly members passed anti-Sharia law that was signed into law by Governor McCrory in 2013. There is an increased level of attacks against Muslims as a result of hate speech and institutional Islamophobia. Three Muslim students were murdered in execution style in Chapel Hill in early 2015, an incident that many believe was an anti-Muslim hate crime.”

Here I note one point of agreement: “hateful speech” does contribute to social hostility, and increases the odds of violence; that’s why it’s called “hate speech.”

Three North Carolina victims of anti-Muslim murder: Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, all outstanding university students. They were shot by a neighbor, Craig Hicks, on February 10, 2015. As of late October 2016, Hicks is still awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

But I part ways with the author as to the remedy, or at least the response. And here my view is that of a pretty old-fashioned First Amendment, ACLU-supporting liberal.

(The ACLU  sets out their view in “Hate Speech on Campus”; and while the ICON lecture was not a campus event, it was held in the heart of Chapel Hill, the quintessential college town community in our region, and the letter was penned by a university researcher. By “the heart” I mean, of course, the venue’s location hard by the local Whole Foods store.)

ACLU: “Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

aclu-logoThat’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. And the ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.

How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most. Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied. . . .”

I couldn’t have said it better, though I have one point to add: if we let self-appointed groups insist that certain words or subjects be banned from public spaces as “offensive,” we are encouraging the forces of totalitarianism in our society, and dabbling with a remedy that’s worse than the disease. I was raised in such a repressive religious atmosphere, and know whereof I speak. Furthermore, what’s right on campus should be right off-campus as well.

Yet are there no limits at all to free speech? Yes there are. Here I agree with the Supreme Court, in a 1969 decision that declared

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969:   

“the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

In the case of Diane West’s lecture, the difference would be between her arguing that infiltration by Islamic radicals will ruin the country, and a call to her hearers to gather weapons, attack the nearest Muslims, and summarily execute them as happened in the horrible, haunting triple murder the previous winter. In the latter case, I’d call 911 right away for serious help. [But I’ve seen no indication that West is ready to jeopardize her presumably lucrative career as a propagandist writer and lecturer by crossing that line.]

So what to do? Here I again defer to the ACLU:

“Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech — not less — is the best revenge.”

So vigorous peaceful protest is fine, as would be a counter-presentation. And I note that ICON itself says on its website that:

“[The] ICON Lecture Series is committed to free speech, diversity of thought and improving the balance and quality of the Triangle’s political conversation.  . . . We welcome people of all political points of view at our events and invite them to participate enthusiastically in our question-and-answer sessions.”

I’d be willing to take them at their word and send some well-prepared, articulate dissenters into the program, to dismantle a racist/Islamophobic presentation with forcefully-argued facts and values.

So that’s what I said to the others in my group: I’d support a vigorous peaceful protest, but not a call to shut down the lecture and the series, unless either called for imminent violence.

Others said much the same thing, and we did not sign on to the letter.

In the event, West’s lecture was held as scheduled. A group of protesters gathered outside the building “with signs and chants” (the sponsor reported 15). There were no reports of arrests or violence, and life here in North Carolina goes on.

So does my encounter with this call to shut down free speech show that the campus and its environs are fatally infected with the virus of speech repression?

I can’t jump from one case as far as that conclusion. But the risk certainly seems to be there. Yet at the same time, the letter’s author is quite right that anti-Islamic agitation can have violent and even fatal consequences, as citizens of our community know to our sorrow. So the struggle against such agitation is real and ongoing; and debates over ways to engage it will likely be ongoing as well.




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Michelle & Larycia: Two Remarkable Women Speak

Michelle & Larycia: Two Remarkable Women Speak


The New York Times Magazine has a very striking & powerful profile of Larycia Hawkins, the former tenured professor at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. She was abruptly fired last year after publicly wearing a hijab “in solidarity” with Muslims facing Islamophobia.
For the record, she wasn’t converting to Islam, but this gesture of “solidarity,” especially by an articulate black woman intellectual was way too much for both Wheaton’s white male rulers & its mostly white constituency.

Continue reading Michelle & Larycia: Two Remarkable Women Speak

Peering Into the Heart of Darkness — And Its End

Adapted From Meetings — A Religious Autobiography

Late 1959: During my senior year, at St. Mary’s High in Cheyenne Wyoming, it was announced one day that we would be treated to a field trip, all the way to Denver, to visit the nearest Catholic colleges: Regis, for men, run by the Jesuits; and nearby Loretto Heights, for women, operated by the Sisters of Loretto.

Index-Book-BurningThe trip’s short-term goal was to persuade us to attend a Catholic college; longer term, they expected we’d marry someone we met at one or the other, then produce more Catholic children, to fill the future pews, collection plates, and polling places.

It’s the Catholic 2,000-Year Plan; and it works. Continue reading Peering Into the Heart of Darkness — And Its End

“Meetings” – Small Is Beautiful – But Is It Buddhist?

“Meetings” – Small Is Beautiful – But Is It Buddhist?

An excerpt:

1976:  I was working essentially full time, for the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian, but was on a freelance basis. Paid by the published article, I was seriously poor.

Cover-FRONT-Meetings-SM-RockwellYet I was not unhappy with my lot: the Bay Guardian was a journalistic legend; the editors respected my work and kept wanting more. I’d been meaning to demand a regular gig, but had been too busy. 

My “beat” was the offbeat, story ideas outside the paper’s weekly regimen of muckraking about politics and other public corruptions, all plentiful in the region. 

Instead I wrote the stories readers wanted but no one else had thought of: Continue reading “Meetings” – Small Is Beautiful – But Is It Buddhist?

Quakers Stand With Muslims in Carolina

Signs of the Times: Quakers Stand With Muslims in Carolina

Fayetteville NC — Fayetteville Friends Meeting is small; and Quaker House, the peace project that’s been here, near sprawling Fort Bragg,  since 1969, is also small. But they count. And they counted on December 18 when a rally was called to show support for the Masjid  Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim mosque there.

Muslims-WE-Are-Friends-Sign-12-18-2015-SM Continue reading Quakers Stand With Muslims in Carolina

“Spotlight”: A Movie About Reporters: A Treatise On Evil

“Spotlight”: A Movie About Reporters: A Treatise On Evil

Just watched “Spotlight.” The reviews are right: it’s a taut journalistic thriller about how the Boston Globe’s legendary Spotlight investigative reporting team blew the lid off the system of pedophile priest protection in the city’s Catholic archdiocese. And through that, opened the door to exposure of a worldwide criminal conspiracy that is still being dismantled, and still being protected.




Yeah it’s a fine film: terrific acting, suspenseful even though we know
how it turns out. It has multiple Oscars written all over it, but wears its excellence without flash, much the way the real-life Spotlight team operated. Continue reading “Spotlight”: A Movie About Reporters: A Treatise On Evil

Memorial Minute for Katharine “Kat” Royal

Memorial Minute for Katharine “Kat” Royal:
January 28, 1982 – October 23, 2015

[Read at her memorial service in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, October31, 2015.]


I’m a Quaker, and at our memorial meetings, Quakers have a custom of preparing and reading what’s called a Memorial Minute. These sound in one way like biographical sketches, and so they are.

But there is a deeper dimension to them for us than simple chronology or the succession of dates and facts. That’s because of an advice that has come down to us from our founders; that advice is to “let your life preach.” 


Continue reading Memorial Minute for Katharine “Kat” Royal

Annals of Homophobia: Don’t Cry For Kim, Rowan County

Annals of Homophobia: Don’t Cry For Kim, Rowan County

Remember the “Rainbow Tour” song from the movie version of “Evita”, the rock opera about Eva Peron? (If not, listen to it here right away.

It follows (and deconstructs) Evita’s supposedly triumphal European tour in the late 1940s:

A 1947 cover of TIME Magazine, featuring Eva “Evita” Peron, on the occasion of her “Rainbow Tour” in Europe.

The third verse from this stunning ensemble piece came back to mind on Wednesday:

More Bad news from Rome — 
She met with the Pope;
She only got a rosary, a kindly word–
I wouldn’t say the Holy Father 
Gave her the bird,
But papal decorations, never a hope . . .”

Who else met with the pope, more recently, and came away with only a rosary and some kindly words?

Yeah, Kim Davis.

News of the brief September 24 encounter was “leaked” by her lawyer.

It happened at the Vatican embassy in Washington, the day before Davis visited the Values Voter Summit, put on annually by Family Research Council Action. 


FRCA is an ultra-rightwing lobby which has specialized in homophobia, plus anti-divorce, anti-same sex marriage and lots of other anti-stuff in the U.S., as well as support for draconian antigay laws in African countries. It has been named a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

FRC-hate-groupIn presidential years, the farther-right GOP candidates line up at the FRCA “Summit” to preen and toss red meat. This time most of them showed up, even Trump (but not Jeb!?) The Summit also runs a straw poll, of course, and this time ted Cruz, perhaps the nastiest of them all (but it’s a tough choice), won.

Still, despite the flurry of media attention that followed the disclosure, the visit turns out to be not exactly a big deal.

To be sure, Francis is on record as being against same sex marriage, and LGBT issues generally (even if he said “Who am I to judge?”); and has repeated the “religious liberty” meme which the American right (including its large Catholic wing) has been turned into a dog-whistle for protecting homophobic discrimination. None of this is new, even if he went out of his way to NOT repeat any of it in public while he was here.

In all his public, to-the-country statements repeatedly (& honestly) trashed the right wing Catholic political agenda, and the bishops’ alliance with them. If I was scoring all this, it would go: 20 for Francis’s good stuff, 1 (so far) for bad. In sports or politics, that would be a landslide or a rout. And in Vegas, betting on the pope saying progressive things while in the USA would have been a very big, loud winner. 

Compare: the Davis meeting was held in private, with no papal aides, news media,  or Davis’s lawyer; it lasted  only a few minutes; the pope’s reported pleasantries were boilerplate; and when asked later, he did not seem well-briefed on her case

Further, the fact of the meeting was embargoed until the pope was safely back in Rome. And late on September 30, the Vatican was still declining to comment on it, sounding embarrassed and blindsided. Some ballyhoo.

Of course, homophobic crusaders like Davis’s “Liberty Counsel” and the “Alliance Defending Freedom” were ecstatic at the news leak, and insisted that it showed that Francis was on board with their campaigns. They can’t be stopped for grabbing this patronizing shred of recognition.

But time to cue the Evita sound track again:

She only got a rosary, a kindly word–
I wouldn’t say the Holy Father 
Gave her the bird,
But papal decorations, never a hope . . .”

Papal decorations? Yeah, there are lots of them. They weren’t likely in this case; but just so you know.

Papal decorations: the order of St. gregarious (above) and the Order of Pope Pius the Ninth. There are several more.

papal-decoration-3-GoodYet Davis didn’t go back to Kentucky unrewarded. Family Research Action gave her a “Cost of Discipleship Award”; its president compared her to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.  So don’t cry for her, Rowan County.

But the rest of us could shed a tear for Parks, King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose witness and martyrdom  were twisted by a creepy group whose worldview would have all of them spinning in their graves. 

PS. Update: Jesuit editor Fr. James Martin adds his well-informed insider perspective here. His verdict also: NBD