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Dangerous Ideas By: Phyllis Chesler
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, October 30, 2007


It was raining; very Londonesque. Ibn Warraq and I were met at Columbia’s Broadway entrance by a Columbia student and a team of Horowitz Freedom Center security guards. A Columbia uniformed officer joined us. Since I was injured in a fall (nothing fatal, just terribly tedious), we were taken to a locked elevator in order to avoid the steep staircase-to-the-stars that lead to the Low Library.

Two or three protestors with signs against “Racism and against Hate” sadly and silently flanked the door to the Math building where we were to speak. Four more Columbia security guards awaited us outside our classroom.

The evening was a refreshing triumph. Every seat in the classroom was occupied. No disruptions occurred. We exercised our “free speech” rights without any staged hostilities.

But it took six security guards to ensure that this could happen. It also took the incredible professionalism and dedication of the Columbia University Republican Party students, especially Chris Kulawik. Finally, the panel, which consisted of Christina Hoff-Sommers, Ibn Warraq, and myself were a diverse lot, and intellectually rather classy. We were not ideologues. We were open, flexible, witty, serious—hardly clones of Darth Vader.

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Left to Right: Christina Hoff-Sommers, Myself, and Ibn Warraq (standing)

Ibn Warraq, fresh from his successful London debate against Tariq Ramadan, was brilliant as he exposed the incredible series of “pernicious” Lies that Edward Said had perpetrated upon the Western academy from his perch right there at Columbia University. Christina Hoff-Sommers, elegant and good-humored, talked about the quiet courage of traditional and conservative Muslim feminists who are, paradoxically, moving against the Orwellian (or Atwoodian) “dystopia” of Islamist misogyny in their countries. I will publish my prepared remarks shortly—although the QNA was possibly even more interesting. It was a privilege to work with these two panelists.

We clearly looked and sounded like “professors” but we were saying things that the students might never have heard before. And, our views were scholarly. We were eloquent and original (at least I thought we were). In the QNA, we were neither defensive nor combative.

Although Christina and I focused on women’s rights under Islam and what the relationship western feminist groups should have to our feminist counterparts in the Islamic world, Columbia’s Women’s Studies Department had not invited us, nor had the Department of Middle East Studies. The Humanities Department had not invited us either—although they certainly should invite Ibn Warraq to discuss his wonderful new book: Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’.

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President Bollinger did not join us either. Clearly, we do not rate as highly as President Ahmadinejad.

Nation magazine (!) sent a reporter, Esther Kaplan, who taped us. Four members of the Jewish media (Helen Freedman, Charley Bernhaut, Elliott Resnick, and Fern Sidman) were there taping and photographing us as well. Young Jewish men wearing kipot sat together with south-east Asian, Muslim, and secular men and women. Hardly Isiah’s vision but still: There were no savage outbreaks, no acting-out, no acting-up.

At least six members of the Revolutionary Communist Party were already there, carefully seated at strategic intervals. In my former life on the feminist left, I had briefly worked with one woman, Mary Lou McKinley-Greenberg: I had spoken once at a Refuse and Resist conference and once at Revolution Books. Mary Lou had also worked part-time at a feminist magazine where I functioned as the Editor-at-Large. I always thought she was “kooky” (how could anyone seriously be a Maoist in the late twentieth century?). Sometimes, I admit it; I thought she was a CIA agent. But I bore her no ill will and had a strange affection for her cheerful, obsessive, industriousness.

So, what the hell, I walked over to her and said hello, rather warmly. (I had not yet read the literature she and her group had prepared against David Horowitz and myself although I had read a completely unbalanced review she had published about my last book.) Still—she did not greet me in return. Or rather, she “greeted” me with a prepared speech. She told me that I was being used by very dangerous people whose agenda was to invade Iran. She demanded: “Do you know that these people are against abortion”? And against birth control?”

“Mary Lou” I responded, “I am still in favor of birth control and for a woman’s right to choose.” “Do you understand that one can make alliances with people who are not exactly like oneself?” And then I suggested that we take a photo together. I suppose I wanted to humanize the confrontation that she and her group had no doubt planned.

She absolutely refused to take a photo with me. It was as if I had become the Devil, or as if she had become a nineteenth century Arab nomad, afraid that her soul might be snatched by my camera.

At the end of the long and enjoyable evening, she came over to badger me further. She had already speechified in the QNA session, as had at least two or possibly three of her comrades. Their questions mainly focused on the war in Iraq and on the betrayal of Muslim women by the American government. Clearly, they had only gotten started. But our security detail had just informed us that we had to leave “right now” before our exit route was locked down for the night. And so I said: “I do not have to answer all your questions. I am tired and I want to go home. And please, stop pointing your finger in my face and badgering me.”

Security moved right in and told her to stand down. She continued to argue with them as I was escorted out of the room.

Mary Lou’s “team” kept asking us whether or not we agreed with various points of the Horowitz website program. Did we (or did we not) reject the concept of global warming? Did we (or did we not) back the Islamic constitution of Iraq? (Ibn Warraq explained that it was the influence of western multi-cultural relativists that so unwisely, prevailed in this matter).

We each looked blankly at the other. Either we had not read about these points or had not thought about them. We were rather blithe about this. But our questioners were startled. The idea that we were not apparachniks, that we had not signed on to the entire party platform was, to them, a dangerous idea.

There is no Politburo, no KGB, no Pravda on the much demonized right-wing Judeo-Christian side of things; at least, not where we three are concerned.

Freedom itself is founded on such dangerous ideas.


Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the well known author of classic works, including the bestseller Women and Madness (1972) The New Anti-Semitism (2003) and The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom (2005). She has just published a new edition of Woman's Inhumanity to Woman (2009). She is an Emerita Professor of psychology and women's studies, the co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (1969) and the National Women's Health Network (1976). Her website is www.phyllis-chesler.com.


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