Egyptian activist's invitation withdrawn
A planned Wednesday talk by controversial Egyptian-American activist Nonie Darwish was cancelled Tuesday evening when both of the event’s sponsors, Tigers for Israel (TFI) and the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, withdrew their sponsorship, citing her criticism of Islam.
Darwish, a writer and the founder of Arabs for Israel and Former Muslims United, was scheduled to give a talk Wednesday afternoon titled “Sharia Law and Perspectives on Israel.” TFI officers rescinded their invitation, however, explaining that they had not been fully aware of Darwish’s views when they invited her to speak.
Though TFI had been planning Darwish’s visit for nearly three weeks and advertised it with posters across campus, TFI president Addie Lerner ’11 said that her organization, which is affiliated with the Center for Jewish Life (CJL), did not wish to be seen as endorsing Darwish by sponsoring her lecture. “We didn’t know in the beginning that [Darwish’s] views were not at all in line with what we believe,” Lerner explained.
After TFI co-vice president Rafael Grinberg ’12 proposed inviting Darwish to campus, Lerner said she read “the first couple of paragraphs” of Darwish’s entry on Wikipedia before extending the invitation. She added that she did minimal research on Darwish largely because she trusted Grinberg and the nonpartisan media watchdog group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) to vet Darwish.
“I accept complete responsibility for the fact that I did not vet her fully,” Lerner said. “I am very sorry if people thought we agreed with [Darwish’s views].”
On her blog, Darwish — formerly Muslim and now Christian — has called Islam “the greatest lie in human history” and criticized Muslim law for encouraging “vigilante street justice to bring about Islamic submission.”
“It was clear that she was very critical of radical Islam in the contemporary Arab world,” TFI co-vice president Jeffrey Mensch ’11 said in an e-mail. “However, we did not realize the extent to which she denounces not just radical Islam, but all of Islam.”
Whig-Clio president Ben Weisman ’11 said the society withdrew its sponsorship and did not permit the event to take place in Whig Hall as planned because of the withdrawal. “Our decision to co-host the event was based on our belief that by extending an offer to speak to Ms. Darwish, members of TFI deemed her views a legitimate element of the mainstream discourse and in part agreed with her incendiary opinions,” Weisman said in an e-mail. “By rescinding their offer, TFI indicated their understanding that Darwish’s views have no place in the campus community, essentially rendering irrelevant our attempt at opening them up for debate.” Weisman is also the director of national sales and development for The Daily Princetonian.
But Grinberg, who was in charge of organizing the event, said he did not agree with the decision to withdraw the invitation. “Despite my disagreement as co-vice president, I had no control over it,” he said. “You need the majority of the board members.”
After TFI and Whig-Clio withdrew, Grinberg found another campus organization willing to sponsor the event — conservative political magazine The Princeton Tory. “But since Public Safety had been told the event was cancelled, there would have been no security, and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students failed to respond to the new co-sponsorship,” so the event could not occur, Grinberg said.
“The reason there is so much controversy about her is people have taken her quotes out of context,” Grinberg said, adding that he thought Darwish was first and foremost a human rights activist, promoting minority rights — including those of women and gays — in the Middle East.
Coordinator of Muslim Life Sohaib Sultan and CJL director Rabbi Julie Roth both said they played a role in changing TFI’s opinion of Darwish. Sultan said he contacted Roth on Monday and discussed with her why Darwish’s appearance on campus could offend the Muslim community.
“[Darwish] fails to make any distinction between extremism and mainstream Islam,” Sohaib said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “She has branded the entire faith as backward and violent and against women’s rights. That type of rhetoric goes beyond academic discourse and into the demonization of a people.”
Sultan noted that he assumed that Roth and the board of TFI were not fully aware of the strong objections concerning Darwish. “I have a very good relationship with the CJL,” he said, adding that he aimed to share with Roth and the TFI “what types of feelings and divisions” Darwish’s visit could foster on campus. Lerner and Mensch said TFI then decided to withdraw sponsorship of the event upon learning more about Darwish’s opinions.
Grinberg, however, said he thinks Darwish was not permitted to speak because TFI feared a large-scale protest. “In my opinion, it has become an issue about whether or not this is allowed to happen at Princeton,” he said. “This is a big step backward, because basically students are taking their preconceived notions of this person to protest and not to listen, instead of going to the lecture and seeing for themselves.”
On Wednesday, the board of the Muslim Students Association sent an e-mail informing members of plans for a protest. “In the event that Ms. Darwish does speak tomorrow, we refuse to stand silent as our faith is attacked,” the e-mail said. “In response, we will gather in protest at the event, dressing in white to express our solidarity with one another and the peaceful message of Islam. We will speak our minds by holding signs and assert our discontent by standing with our backs to Ms. Darwish.”
But Lerner and Mensch both said the possibility of a protest was not what convinced TFI to withdraw its sponsorship of Darwish’s talk. “Tigers for Israel has not been intimidated in the past by opposition, nor is it now,” Mensch said, adding that he did not think the cancellation of the talk signified a stifling of free speech.
Roth echoed Mensch’s sentiment. “This should be seen as an affirmation that a wide range of conflicting political views can be aired on campus, but that there are boundaries on both sides where political views become anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic in ways that neither promote constructive education nor move towards a goal shared by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians,” she said in an e-mail.
Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) president Yoel Bitran ’11 said PCP did not ask either TFI or Whig-Clio to cancel the event. “It makes sense that hate speech wouldn’t be something encouraged on campus,” he noted.
But PCP was planning a campaign “to inform the community about Darwish and to encourage people to go to the event and challenge her by asking questions,” Bitran explained.
On Monday, the Arab Society of Princeton held a meeting, attended by Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, to discuss the issue, Arab Society president Sami Yabroudi ’11 and former president Sarah Mousa ’10 said in a joint statement. “Nonie Darwish is to Arabs and Muslims what Ku Klux Klan members, skinheads and neo-Nazis are to other minorities, and we decided that the role of her talk in the logical, intellectual discourse espoused by Princeton University needed to be questioned,” they said of the meeting.
On Wednesday afternoon, Lerner sent an e-mail to the members of the Muslim Students Association apologizing for the initial decision to invite Darwish to campus and explaining that the event had been canceled. “I sincerely apologize for offending any person or group on campus, especially the Muslim community,” she said in the e-mail. “Tigers for Israel deeply regrets the initial sponsorship, and we do not in any way endorse [Darwish’s] views.”
Bitran said he found Lerner’s explanation “kind of strange.” “I congratulate them for having the courage to apologize … [but] it takes no more than a 10-second Google search to find out what Nonie Darwish believes,” he explained.
Sultan said he thought TFI handled the situation well. “I thought the apology was very considerate,” he said. “It certainly helped cool some of the tensions and divisions that were created by the issue.”
Roth stressed the importance of ongoing dialogue in future events concerning political and religious tensions in the Middle East. “I [hope that] in the spirit of this great University, we will continue to foster constructive debate as well as opportunities to learn about conflicting narratives as the campus conversation on the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict continues,” she said.