For the University of Michigan community, it must come as some relief that the three people arrested by campus police for repeatedly disrupting a lecture on Iran last Thursday by Michigan professor of politics emeritus Raymond Tanter have no connection to the university.
But the role played by another Michigan professor leaves little room for celebration: Kathryn Babayan, an associate professor of Near Eastern studies, sat with the demonstrators as a sign of solidarity and insulted Tanter personally from the floor.
Speaking by telephone from his home in Washington, where he now teaches at Georgetown University and oversees the Iran Policy Committee, which he founded, Tanter stressed that Babayan didn’t disrupt his talk: “She didn’t prevent me from speaking,” he said.
But he found her actions “particularly disturbing,” because, “she aided and abetted a group that prevented the scholarly transmission of knowledge.”
“The paradox is that a scholar from Princeton [where Babayan earned her Ph.D.] would be part of a group that denies free speech on a university campus,” Tanter said, adding that, “students have rights, and faculty have an obligation to teach, not to obstruct the teaching of others.”
“The issue,” insisted Tanter, “is freedom of speech for students.”
Tanter’s topic was “Stalled International Diplomacy and Problematic Military Options for Iran,” but hecklers prevented him for delivering his talk as he had planned. A Power Point slide show was rendered useless by constant interruptions and shouts, which included “Tanter is a pig.”
Students in attendance were disappointed that Tanter was unable to speak, and that a Michigan professor would ally herself with protesters whose goal was to shout down a lecturer.
Tamara Livshiz, a sophomore majoring in history and anthropology-zoology who attended the lecture, said in a telephone interview that Babayan held a poster protesting Tanter’s appearance. Later, as Tanter attempted in vain to accommodate the hecklers by answering their questions, Babayan stood up, raised her hand, and gave a “long narrative” before asking an insulting rhetorical question.
Livshiz said that “a speaker should inform, but the protesters charged him with trying to enforce his views on everyone else.”
According to Tanter, Babayan accused him of knowing nothing about the Shia in Iran and of being condescending, and claimed that she had “too many young students” at the lecture who she feared, “could be misled” by his views.
Josh Berman, who graduates next week with degrees in psychology and political science, is chairman of American Movement for Israel, a student group that sponsored the talk. Speaking by phone, Berman said that Michigan students who are harsh critics of Israel “tend to be more respectful” of speakers with whom they disagree than were the off-campus hecklers. Yet he was more disappointed in Babayan than in the protesters, whom he says numbered around seven.
“Faculty have an obligation to be respectful toward their colleagues,” said Berman. “You might not agree with a speaker, but students have a right to hear a lecture by an invited guest, who ought to be given the opportunity to speak without being interrupted.”
Tanter seems an unlikely target for such protest. He speaks twice weekly with the Arabic language branch of Al-Jazeera and appears often on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. and Al Arabiya, a Saudi-controlled news station based in Dubai. He says he’s on good terms with many scholars with whom he disagrees, including controversial Michigan historian Juan Cole and former Carter administration official Gary Sick.
But his sponsorship by Jewish students was sufficient to send self-professed “anti-Zionist” agitators into action. Livshiz, the sophomore who attended the lecture, said that one protester held aloft a poster that read “No More Wars for Israel,” with the “s” in the word Israel written as a swastika.
Tanter mentioned Israel only tangentially by noting that it may preempt American policy by striking Iranian nuclear facilities on its own.
Tanter’s efforts to be polite in the face of unprovoked rage were noted by an Ann Arbor police officer in attendance who told him: “I found your lecture interesting and informative. It is unfortunate that we had to take action relative to the disruptive individuals at the event. … I felt you addressed the concerns and questions in a respectful manner, despite the harshness and negativity expressed by some of those in attendance.”
But neither Tanter’s irenic nature nor his decades spent in university life, matter to hecklers bent on denying students their right to hear scholarly lectures on university property, nor to professors like Kathryn Babayan, whose behavior so violated the obligations of her vocation.
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