Two sharply contrasting images from life at the University of Pennsylvania confront students pondering the threat posed by radical Islam. One is a plaque just off College Green that bears the names of alumni murdered on September 11. Another is the notorious set of photos from Amy Gutmann’s 2006 Halloween bash, where an undergraduate dressed as a suicide bomber playfully “executed” revelers — and then posed with the Penn president herself.
Are Islamist violence and oppression matters of grave concern to the free world? Or are Islamic radicals the stuff of costume parties, akin to the werewolves and vampires that haunt only our imaginations? The dichotomy marking Penn’s recent past reflects the ongoing confusion that grips society well beyond the ivory tower. It is precisely this fog that Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week intends to clear.
Technically, there was no IFAW at Penn. It was renamed “Terrorism Awareness Week” following objections that the events conflicted with the Muslim Student Association’s Islam Awareness Week. Moreover, in the words of local MSA chairman Samir Malik, the original designation “was very narrow-minded, wasn’t respectful, and wasn’t conducive to the open dialogue environment that Penn strives to foster.” The Penn College Republicans accepted the change as part of a compromise in which Penn’s MSA would compose a statement condemning violence perpetrated in the name of Islam.
However, the MSA failed to uphold its end of the bargain, as its statement does not offer an unambiguous reproach of Islamic-inspired bloodshed. The text instead features lamentations that Islam is misunderstood, a quote decrying the term “Islamo-Fascism” from 9/11 “Truther” Paul Craig Roberts, and other metaphysical murk. Moreover, the Koranic ayat (5:32) put forth to allegedly denounce “violence against innocent civilians” was edited to exclude a phrase that permits the killing of those who promote “mischief in the land.” Were the denizens of the World Trade Center “innocent”? Was Theo van Gogh making “mischief” when he filmed Submission? Were the Penn College Republicans?
While the intention had been to read the statement — or have an MSA representative read it — at the start of IFAW/TAW events, organizers scrapped the idea, rightly deeming the MSA’s words useless. The text has not been officially released by either party. Surely this episode provides a valuable lesson. Based on my conversations with PCR officials, that lesson has been learned — the hard way.
IFAW/TAW kicked off on Monday, October 22, with another compromise that did not quite turn out as expected. Rather than giving Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes his own platform, the organizers placed him in a panel discussion with two Penn professors, terrorism expert Stephen Gale and War on Terror critic Ian Lustick. Unfortunately, the late arrival of Pipes both diminished the impact of his expert voice and demanded a last-minute modification of the format. The panelists instead gave short talks and fielded questions from an audience that totaled about 75 members.
Lustick — who famously endorsed the tenure bid of Israel-hating pseudo-academic Norman Finkelstein and once lamented that the U.S. had achieved its victory in Afghanistan too easily — spoke first and accounted for most of the highlights/lowlights. Gale followed him with an exposition on terrorism from a largely tactical standpoint; he also criticized universities for offering insufficient courses to help students grasp this phenomenon. Pipes closed with a more strategic perspective, identifying radical Islam as the enemy and proposing to bolster moderate forces in the Muslim world.
But the evening belonged to Lustick, whose conspiracy-driven diatribes included many hanging curveballs that Pipes would have hammered if only he had been there to swing away. The professor’s fundamental argument was that the reaction to 9/11 has been overblown, due in no small part to the repeated airing of footage that shows the planes cutting into the Twin Towers. He claimed that this had traumatized viewers into a vastly exaggerated sense of the terrorist threat — which he believes is minimal for America — thus feeding the aims of a “neocon cabal” eager for war in the Middle East.
In response to his implication that 9/11 was a one-off event and that terrorism should be of limited concern to Americans, I recited a list of thwarted and failed attacks against Western targets over the past eighteen months: the Toronto terror plot, the trans-Atlantic airlines plot, the Fort Dix plot, the JFK plot, the London car bomb plot, and the German and Danish plots — not to mention the recent conviction of would-be dirty bomber Jose Padilla. Those familiar with the professor’s work will not be surprised by his counter.
First, Lustick asserted that since many of the above plans were spawned in Europe, terrorism is primarily their problem, not ours. Second, he argued that disrupted U.S.-based plots are often characterized by entrapment or bungling, and hence pose little significant danger. Third, he claimed that the most perilous domestic threat uncovered over the last few years centered on a Christian extremist of whom virtually no one has heard — because the media and politicians are unjustly fixated on the notion that the majority of terrorists are Muslim.
Former Senator Rick Santorum offered greater clarity and purpose when he addressed a few hundred listeners on Wednesday evening. Opening with a condemnation of academia for presenting only one side of controversial issues, Santorum proceeded to do the teaching that American teachers will not do. Indeed, his talk was highlighted by cogent interludes exploring the Islamist mindset, the fundamental differences between Christian and Muslim social systems, the contrasting worldviews of Sunnis and Shiites, the history of Islamic aggression, and the advent of modern Islamism.
Santorum also challenged left-leaning students to heed the testimony of self-described radical feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who suffered genital mutilation in Somalia but managed to escape an arranged marriage there. She is now a refugee from Europe as well. He likewise cited the experiences of author Bruce Bawer, who moved to Amsterdam with his homosexual partner in order to free himself from what he had considered America’s oppressive religious atmosphere. Once there, however, Bawer found Muslim youths beating gays on the streets and the Islamist agenda advancing through Dutch society.
The erstwhile senator concluded with the words of Winston Churchill on the eve of World War II, urging action in the face of gathering threats. “How long are we going to wait?” Santorum asked, noting that the Greatest Generation did essentially nothing for two years while Hitler plowed through Europe. He also cautioned against the tendency to always “think that the people opposing us are like us.” The Islamists are not — and we must calibrate our response accordingly.
Despite a couple of obvious missteps, Terrorism Awareness Week both engaged and informed its audience. Chairwoman Abby Huntsman and President Zac Byer of the Penn College Republicans cheered the solid turnout and expressed hope that the events will spark an extended debate. They also reiterated the plea of Professor Stephen Gale for universities to provide additional courses on these vital subjects.
Finally, the Penn community should be praised for the respectful treatment that it accorded each of its distinguished guests. Other than some defamatory flyers, a handful of protesters outside the Santorum talk, and the coordinated walkout of a few dozen attendees midway through his remarks, the opposition hardly mustered a peep. If only the hooligans at Berkeley and Emory could learn to exhibit comparable self-restraint.