A curious thing happened when Walid Shoebat arrived for a speech at the University of California at Davis last week. Shoebat, the former PLO terrorist who now speaks out against terrorism and militant Islam, not only faced his largest ever audience at a college campus -- a sold-out crowd of over 1,300 people -- but he actually got to deliver his remarks without interruption.
This was hardly a foregone conclusion. Only one week earlier at the University of California at Irvine, Middle East expert Daniel Pipes had his remarks disrupted by students from the Muslim Students Association, who chanted and yelled before finally being escorted from the auditorium.
The MSA’s sister organization at UC Davis had planned a similar welcome for Shoebat -- only worse. The MSA had planned to fill up several rows in the school’s Freeborn Hall when Shoebat spoke in order to chant and drown him out. Using a cell phone, they intended to phone a member stationed outside the building to start a fire so as to empty the auditorium. What’s more, they had ample to reason to think that they could do so without penalty. Organizers and sponsors of the Shoebat speech, who included the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the UC Davis College Republicans and campus Hillel, were initially informed by the UC Davis campus police that were the MS A to interfere with the event, there was nothing to be done. It would be considered “freedom of speech.”
That’s when the organizers decided to take action. They demanded that the MSA students be warned of the consequences if they did disrupt. An attorney and organizer also informed the university of legal statutes in California, upheld by the Supreme Court in a similar case that involved disruption of Martin Luther King Jr. while speaking during the Civil Rights Movement, and which provided the basis for arrest and prosecution. They further informed the school’s administration that the same rules applied in the university’s codes of conduct. Just prior to Shoebat’s speech, a student organizer notified the MSA that any intentional disruption would result in actual ar rests and prosecutions and would not be tolerated. The MSA remained silent throughout the entire speech and question period, choosing to walk out later midway through the event.
In his remarks, Shoebat did not shy away from his critics. He spoke first about a flyer that was handed out to entrants outside the building by the MSA, asserting that he was a fraud. One accusation in the flyer claimed that Shoebat had falsified the name of a terrorist colleague he knew in America while he was still a student himself at Loop College in Chicago. The flyer maintained no such person existed.
Against these charges, Shoebat pointed out that the man in question -- one Jamal Said -- was very real indeed. He had formed the Islamic Association for Palestine, the forerunner for CAIR, Shoebat said, and was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the predecessor of al-Qaeda, and Hamas. He explained how as a young student he had worked with this man to prepare for jihad in America. Said is still the imam at the Bridgeview Mosque in Chicago. Shoebat also provided the exact location and address of the Bank Leumi next to the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank, where he had attempted a terrorist attack, thus deflating an accusation that no Bank Leumi branch existed in the West Bank.
Shoebat took strong exception to the school’s Muslim Students Association calling him a "racist" and a liar. “When I was a terrorist they called me a freedom fighter. Now that I reject terrorism they say I’m a racist,” he said. Indeed, the MSA at UC Davis has in the past paid homage to Hassan al-Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shoebat’s oratory especially shined when he discussed his life. He recounted how his mother, an American Christian, had married his Palestinian father, whom she met at Humboldt State College in California. After going on a visit to the West Bank, she was kept a virtual prisoner of his family: Henceforth, she was told, she would be a Muslim -- whether she liked it or not. At one point, she tried to flee to the U.S. consulate with her three children, though her US passport had been taken away, only to be caught at the entrance and brought back home. There Shoebat’s father severely beat her and even enlisted the children, including Shoebat, to spy on her. It took her 35 years for her to escape with Shoebat’s help. “The Middle East is like the Hotel California,” Shoebat explained. “You can ch eck out, but you can never leave.”
Eventually, Shoebat rescued his mother and brought her back to America. Her freedom was purchased at a steep price: complete alienation from his family; the loss of his property; and death threats that continue to this day.
Shoebat also recounted his history as an Islamic militant. Brought up in the West Bank, Shoebat learned from Palestinian society and schools to hate and even to kill Jews. From his earliest days, he explained, the writing was on the wall.
“Everywhere in the West Bank you see graffiti. It’s not gang affiliations like you see here. The typical written message is like this: ‘We pound on the gates of heaven with the skulls of Jews.’”
Over time, however, anti-Semitic ideology lost its grip on Shoebat. Although Shoebat’s ancestors had all taken part in Arab nationalist and Muslim irredentist movements to kill Jews and drive them from Palestine -- his grandfather had been a close friend of Nazi ally Haj Amin al-Hussein, who raised two divisions of Muslim troops for Hitler -- he began to question his teachings. His epiphany occurred when he married a Christian woman. He tried to force her to convert to Islam. On a dare, she asked him to show her what was “untrue” in the Bible. After reading it, he began to reject Islamic eschatology. He began to question what he had been taught, not least t he Holocaust denial on which he had been raised. “We were taught the Jews have no shame…When shown photos of dead bodies piled atop each other at Auschwitz, we were taught to believe the Jews remove their clothing to fake a scene to justify taking our land.”
Turning to the history of the Middle East, Shoebat bemoaned "the Middle East experts who claim to know the culture and history of the region but have never really lived there.” He spoke about Palestinians destroying Jewish holy sites after the 1993 Oslo Accords and the episodic vandalism of the Church of the Nativity, from which gold sacraments were stolen. By contrast, Shoebat noted, Israel had always treated these holy sites with respect. Yet that has not deterred the PLO and Hamas from trying to shift the blame for their persecution of Christians in the Holy Land onto Israel.
In this connection, Shoebat offered a trenchant analysis of anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world. He discussed the blood libel frequently seen on Arab television and media, readily accessible to children, and he revealed that many Palestinians privately say that the golden age of life in the West Bank was in fact under Israeli occupation. “After Israel left, the West Bank and Gaza became the Night of the Living Dead,” he explained, as Shoebat also described how Palestinian “collaborators” with Israel are executed in the streets, strung upside down, their entrails taken out and presented to the enraged crowds as a treat. “Why are the Jews not allowed to live among us?” he asked.
Shoebat reserved much of his criticism on what he sees as the growing intolerance of the academic world. “I’m very concerned about what is going on at the college campuses,” he said. Shoebat listed comments by professors praising the Ayatollah Khomeini and terrorist leaders and groups and noted that students dissenting from the political consensus are intimidated on campus when speaking out. Shoebat said that he had been the target of similar attacks. “They call me a racist because I criticize Islam. But I criticize Christianity and Judaism too. To criticize a religion is not racism, it is freedom of speech." He continued, “We don’t want to bring over here the way of life in the Middle East,” and he warned the audience “This is what life would be like under Sharia Law. I don’t want to live in Egypt, or Pakistan or Syria or Iran or other countries where we do not have the freedoms we enjoy here.”
Despite its tardy start -- Shoebat’s speech had been delayed by over 30 minutes because campus security had to frisk the attendees -- it was a popular success, at least if the sustained standing ovation Shoebat received at the end is a reliable index. As with the MSA, 60 of whose members silently walked out midway through the evening, not everyone appreciated his message that fundamentalist Islam poses a threat to America and Israel. More surprising is that many students, including many Palestinians, surrounded Shoebat, not to harass him but to shake his hand and ask him questions. For these students, Shoebat was a refreshing change from the relentless campus propaganda against Israel and America they hear daily on campus.