NEW YORK - Columbia University just can’t seem to get it right. Exactly one week after inadequate security allowed a mob of left-wing student activists to silence a speech by Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist, the university again found itself embroiled in controversy, this time for providing too much security.
Undaunted by last week's reverse, the Columbia University College Republicans (who sponsored the earlier disrupted speech) and the Columbia College Conservative Club this Wednesday sponsored another event. Titled “From Hate to Love," it featured three different speakers, each of whom defected from an extremist past: Hilmar von Campe, a soldier in the Nazi army during World War II and a onetime member of the Hitler Youth; Zachariah Anani, a lapsed Muslim who notched 223 confirmed kills as a young terrorist in Beirut; and Walid Shoebat, a onetime student militant and PLO terrorist.
Mere hours before the event began, however, the students received word that it would not proceed as planned. Having previously approved the event and provided for students to include “invited guests,” the university, by way of an official statement from University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, announced that this was no longer “consistent” with university policy and rescinded the invitations of over 100 guests of the College Republicans, many of whom had braved a steady rain and traveled from as far away as Boston to attend. With only half of the 230 expected guests permitted into Columbia’s Roone Hall, the new security improvements -- such as a plastic fence barricading the length of the stage -- seemed suddenly excessive.
The university’s last-minute meddling did not go unremarked by the speakers. Walid Shoebat observed that the school had made no attempt to interfere with appearances by speakers favored by left-wing students, such as Sen. Hillary Clinton. If the school wanted to maintain a semblance of fairness, he said, “I guess they should ban people if they come to see Hillary Clinton, too.” Hilmar von Campe, raising the subject on everyone’s mind, called attention to last week’s student-led sabotage. “It reminds me of what we had in Nazi Germany,” von Campe reflected. The only difference was that instead of radical students, “it was the Nazi stormtroopers -- the SA -- whose job it was to silence the opposition and intimidate the so-called ‘ruling classes.’”
Despite the unpropitious start, the evening’s overall tenor was positive. In keeping with the theme of personal evolution, the speakers recounted their journeys, both physical and intellectual, from their days as soldiers under the standard of extreme ideologies to their current role as passionate spokesman against their former beliefs and defenders of their erstwhile enemies.
Each of the speakers stressed the impact of indoctrination in their youth. Hilmar von Campe explained that the Nazi system of political indoctrination operated not by issuing commands but by controlling key institutions -- such as the media and military -- that effectively manipulated public opinion. The Nazi idea, he said, “was for you to do voluntarily what they wanted you to do.” Under the influence of such indoctrination, von Campe came to believe that World War II was not a war incited by Nazi aggression but a patriotic war to preserve German sovereignty. As a soldier, “I was in my mind defending the country, not fighting for the Nazis,” von Campe said.
For Zachariah Anani and Walid Shoebat, the source of their indoctrination was Islam. Zachariah Anani related that hailing from a family of imams, he was from an early age expected to devote his life to certain Islamic beliefs. Chief among them was the tenet that the worldwide community of Islamic believers comprise the only “righteous nation.” “The rest of the world is nothing but infidels who can be wiped out,” Anani remembered being taught. Impelled by these beliefs, the teenaged Anani entered a life of terrorism, killing for the first time at the age of 14. “By the time I was 18,” he recalled, “killing was as easy as walking through a door.” After converting to Christianity, Anani, now a Canadian citizen, was not merely disowned by his family but hunted, as well. Anani’s father hired three Kurdish assassins to kill him, while his former Muslims friends made several attempts on his life; the last of these injured Anani as well as his daughter. Anani recalled his father’s final words to him: “Killing you would bring me closer to God.”
Growing up in the Palestinian territories, Walid Shoebat had a similar experience. In particular, he recalled the widespread hatred of Jews instilled in Palestinians from a young age. In kindergarten, Shoebat said, he sang songs with such titles as, “Arabs are beloved, Jews are dogs.” Even in a Christian school, Shoebat was told that the Jewish prophets were actually “Palestinian revolutionaries.” Another factor in his initial induction into the world of terrorism was what he called “the culture of death in Palestinian areas.” For instance, when Shoebat’s cousin was killed by Israelis, while attempting a bombing mission, his aunt threw a village-wide celebration in tribute to his final act of murder.
Shoebat noted that the radical recruitment and indoctrination he underwent as a young man was also happening in the United States. This happened through clandestine support by Islamic radicals for Middle Eastern terrorist groups; through preaching by radical clerics; and, more subtly, through American universities. In the latter connection, Shoebat singled out several professors -- including Richard Falk, a professor emeritus of International Law at Princeton who once referred to Ayatollah Khomeini as a “moderate” and described Islamist Iran as a “model of human government,” and Columbia’s own Rashid Khalidi, who routinely deplores Israel as a “racist” and “apartheid” state -- as examples of professors who prefer to suppress the truth about Islamic fundamentalism rather than confront it. “Before we fight terrorism without, we have to fight support for terrorism within,” Shoebat said, garnering warm applause from the audience.
During a question and answer question, Shoebat was asked to assess the prospects for Islamic reform. Shoebat revealed that he was not an optimist in this regard. Particularly problematic, he said, was the Islamic injunction to wage jihad. “The cyanide in Islam is jihad,” Shoebat said, adding that “it means my struggle, but then so does mein kampf.” Shoebat confessed that he was skeptical of the efforts of some liberal Muslims, like the author Irshad Manji, to write the more violent Islamic commands out of the religion. While commendable, theirs was a “minority view in the Arab world,” Shoebat said. Zachariah Anani struck a more hopeful note. In his view, Muslims could be divided into two groups: the “orthodox Islamists” who supported violence against all unbelievers and the “‘ignorants’ who say ‘live and let live.’” Said Anani: “Thank God there are many more ignorants.”
An amusing point in the evening came when a black student, who introduced himself as a follower of Malcolm X, asked the speakers to provide some advice on combating “the violence and oppression of American society.” Both Shoebat and Anani dismissed the comparison between the United States and the Middle East as frivolous. To understand the difference, Shoebat recommended that the student travel to any part of the Muslim world, put on a Jewish kippah or a Christian cross, and “see how long you live.” Anani, similarly, recalled that as a young man in Beirut, he had grown accustomed to the deaths of two hundred men daily. “Go to Lebanon, then come back to me,” he suggested.
On another occasion, a student complained that the speakers were too harsh in their assessment of Islam, ignoring that other religions also had a history of fundamentalism. Shoebat replied that he was not persuaded. Describing himself as a “Christian fundamentalist,” Shoebat said that he had no compunction about criticizing the anti-Jewish writings of a Christian theologian like Martin Luther. Such self-criticism, he said, was glaringly absent in the Muslim world and made Islamic fundamentalism more dangerous than its counterparts in other religions. Putting the differences between religious fundamentalisms more starkly, Shoebat said: “As a Christian fundamentalist, I may give you a headache. But a Muslim fundamentalist will take off your head.”
In contrast to last week, when police officers stood by while students swarmed the stage, the speakers finished their remarks without interruption. Like last week, however, the Columbia University College Republicans gave the university administration poor marks. “The administration is literally nullifying our invitations,” CUCR’s frustrated president, Chris Kulawik, referring to the school’s refusal to allow entry to many of the invitees, said at the evening’s end. Kulawik added that his group was being punished for the incivility of the same leftwing students who ruined their earlier event. Victor Cocchia, president of the Columbia College Conservative Club, agreed. “This event was essentially hijacked by the same people who rushed the stage last week,” Cocchia said.
Kulawik and Cocchia found support from some unlikely allies. One Barnard College student who declined to give her name took strong exception to the remarks of the speakers. She agreed, however, that last week’s debacle did not warrant the excessive security response of the school. “What the students did last week was inappropriate,” she said, “but this heightened security is too much.”
In the politically charged environs of Morningside Heights, the incompetence of the university administration may be the lone point of consensus.
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