Last week’s opening arguments featured attorneys for Lynne Stewart and co-defendant Mohamed Yousry denying that their clients assisted Sheik Abdel Rahman carry out his political program on the grounds that, as dedicated leftists, Stewart and Yousry opposed right-wing Islamic fundamentalism. This claim has as little credence as attorney Kenneth Paul’s contention that Stewart’s co-defendant, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, did not consider the statement "Kill Jews wherever they are and wherever you find them" to constitute "a solicitation of violence or a terrorist statement." The Left’s response to Islamic fascism represents a scandal of American intellectual life: determined to portray Israel as an "imperialist" state and America little better, leftist academics have interpreted Islamic fundamentalism as an anti-imperialist cause worthy of sympathy.
Take, for example, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), CUNY’s faculty union. Since the installation of new leadership in 2000, the PSC has positioned itself as "a new kind of labor movement that combats the persistence of institutional racism, income inequality and the absence of real democracy." Among PSC President Barbara Bowen’s first acts was to donate $5,000 to the legal defense fund of Lori Berenson, imprisoned for aiding Marxist terrorists in Peru. In recent months, the union has boycotted Coca-Cola to protest the company’s wages in Colombia, passed a resolution sympathizing with Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president known for his authoritarian tendencies and anti-American diatribes, and attacked John Kerry’s opposition to immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq and support for educators’ merit pay.
Yet on Middle Eastern affairs, this band of leftists has consistently excused the acts of Islamic fundamentalists. After the 9/11 attacks, the union organized "teach-ins" at CCNY and Brooklyn College whose panels on international relations, the contemporary Middle East, and the War on Terror contained no supporters of either U.S. or Israeli policy. One invited speaker at the CCNY event attributed the World Trade Center attacks to "American imperialism" in the Middle East; another argued that America’s "horrible" diplomacy explained Arab terrorism. The PSC subsequently opposed the war in Afghanistan, which Barbara Bowen stated would "inevitably harm countless innocent civilians, strengthen American alliances with brutal dictatorships and deepen global poverty." Attacks from suicide murderers against innocent civilians in Israel, on the other hand, have received no notice from the union.
This mindset has guided the PSC’s response to events relating to the Stewart trial. After his arrest, Yousry, then an adjunct professor at CUNY’s York College, was not rehired. (The CUNY faculty contract gives the university the right not to renew adjuncts’ contracts for any non-discriminatory reason.) In response, according to PSC Vice President Steve London, the union made Yousry "a point of principle"; the head of the PSC’s "Academic Freedom Committee" argued that not rehiring Yousry "simply because he has been indicted...could portend a resurgence of McCarthyism." Under this theory, any CUNY adjunct who received a felony indictment alleging criminal activity, even accused murderers, would enjoy the protection of academic freedom. It came as little surprise that an arbitrator rejected this specious reasoning and upheld CUNY’s action.
As in the PSC’s response to Middle Eastern affairs and handling of the Yousry case, contemporary curricular debates have seen leftist ideologues adopting a rose-colored view of the Arab Middle East. A good example comes in a new faddish field called "Global Studies," which has appeared at around two dozen colleges nationwide. Despite the grand title, most existing "Global Studies" departments are narrow in focus, consisting largely of offerings oriented around race, class, gender, and cultural studies, concentrated on events after 1950.
The appeal of "Global Studies" programs for the academic Left comes in the opportunity for regular commentary on contemporary affairs, in classes structured to criticize the Western tradition, contemporary U.S. foreign policy, and Israel’s role in the Middle East. Indeed, the Middle East Studies Association has championed "global studies" programs as a way of deflecting the increasing realization that nearly all (federally funded) Middle East studies programs exhibit an anti-Israel bias.
The"Global Studies" approach has earned particularly strong support from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a group with an imposing-sounding name but whose policies are implemented by a small group of ideologues. (The AAC&U argues that college and universities should teach "global"—as opposed to American—citizenship.) At my own institution, Brooklyn College Provost Roberta S. Matthews, operating under the premise that "teaching is a political act," has recently advocated the creation of a "global studies" department, with the power to hire professors and design new courses.
A typical "Global Studies" department, that of New York’s St. Lawrence University, features a variety of ideologically one-sided courses on race, class, and gender, with two offerings on the Middle East. "Why Do ‘They’ Hate ‘Us’?" situates the 9/11 attacks "in several thematic contexts," including the history of imperialism and the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East; "Palestinian Identities," meanwhile, introduces students to Palestinian identification "as a political and cultural community as they continue to struggle to free themselves from Israeli domination." The course concludes with a required "public activity of some sort, with the goal of educating the community about the importance of understanding what Edward Said has called ‘the question of Palestine.’" In the world of the academic Left, Israel and the United States are imperialist nations, and so the forces opposing them deserve sympathetic treatment.
Programs such as "Global Studies" or initiatives such as the PSC’s celebration of Yousry, unfortunately, often enjoy support within the academy. But district court for New York’s Southern District is not the Faculty Club. Defense attorneys will need to do more than claim that the American Left does not sympathize with Arab fundamentalism if they hope to exonerate their clients.