When Brigitte Gabriel recently gave a speech at Memphis University, she was confronted with a familiar sight: an audience so hostile to her message that it had come not to debate but to silence her.
A passionate and powerful speaker who had witnessed Palestinian terrorism and experienced anti-Jewish and anti-Christian propaganda in her native Lebanon, Gabriel had been invited to speak at the Tennessee campus by religious studies professor David Patterson. But the day before Gabriel's speech, Patterson began receiving threatening e-mails.
“Do you honestly think the scheduled lecture will serve any useful purpose other than inflaming the Muslims, insulting them and spilling poison in the community?” one message asked. Another charged that inviting Gabriel to speak was “worse than hosting of the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.” Still another described her as among “the true enemies of Islam.”
The menacing emails proved prescient. When Gabriel and Patterson arrived in the campus auditorium 15 minutes before her scheduled presentation, several rows of seats in the front of the room were already occupied by men and women dressed in distinctive Muslim clothing. Before Gabriel was introduced, a Muslim man who has been a long-term graduate student at the university strode to the front of the room and announced: “We have been told that the speaker will only accept questions written on cards. Everyone who believes this is an un-democratic lecture, raise your hands.” The Muslims in the audience shouted their agreement.
Undaunted, Gabriel went to the front of the room and announced that the lecture belonged to her and that those who did not see it this way were welcome to leave. Two campus police officers stood on either side of her. They also called for backup. By the time order was restored and Gabriel began her speech, 10 police officers were posted in the room. Patterson implored the audience to give her a chance to be heard.
After her speech, she answered every question submitted — questions she described as “Palestinian talking points” — before the Muslim audience members swarmed onto the stage and surrounded her, yelling angrily. Finally, police officers grabbed her and hustled her out a side door. Someone else had to retrieve her coat and suitcase while she waited in a police car to be driven to the hotel where, for security reasons, she was registered under another name. Only after she had locked her door and drawn the curtains, did Gabriel allow herself to tremble.
“The intimidation takes a toll on you,” Gabriel said in an e-mail message to friends after the Memphis speech. “I was dreading this all day, ever since my hosts told me they had been receiving hostile e-mail about my lecture. It was weighing so heavily on my heart. My stomach was in knots. I got a migraine headache. I knew I was going into battle and there was no way out of it. I was nervous and stressed. Each time this happens, I hate it and it makes me feel that I don't want to do it anymore. But I will do it. I will never stop. If we stop, the Islamists will have won. We cannot allow that to happen.”
Cases of workplace harassment are nothing new, of course. Years ago, I was asked to testify in a legal action on behalf of a woman who worked the night shift alone in a small store. As a devout Christian, she was offended by the pornographic magazines the store sold. She also felt endangered by the kind of men who came in after midnight to peruse and buy these magazines. She eventually refused to sell the magazines during her shift, and was fired. So she sued.
During her trial, an important question was deliberated: Does the First Amendment right of pornographers override a woman's personal religious beliefs and her rights to on-the-job safety? Does being surrounded by pornographic magazines constitute a “hostile” work environment? The company retaliated for her lawsuit by depicting her to the press as a fanatic on a rampage against both secular society and free speech. My decision to testify on her behalf led some of the usual suspects to question my political sanity and my feminism.
Over the years, I have been consulted by other women, especially those in blue-collar, formerly all-male jobs who have often been harassed and forced to live with sadistic pornography placed in their lockers, locker rooms, and work areas. The film North Country, which stars Charlize Theron, depicts exactly such mistreatment of women miners. The film is based on a real class action lawsuit that 19 women first filed in the 1970s against Ogleby Norton in Eveleth, Minn. The women sued because they were subjected to verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse and to omnipresent sexual graffiti. It took more than 20 years for the women to win a settlement, but only after they found themselves put on trial. Their sexual, gynecological, psychological, and marital histories were scrutinized in the courtroom. Many people said that the women simply ought to “tough it out.” Some said that pornography and insults were protected under the First Amendment.
Today, those who speak out against Islamic extremism face similar circumstances. When someone tries to tell the truth about Islam or departs from the politically correct line — against America, Israel, Jews, and religion — they are subjected to hostile working conditions, just like the women miners of North Country. In the West, authors critical of Islam are routinely threatened, sometimes sued for “defamation,” or slandered as “racists.” Western academics who criticize Islamic culture have been ostracized or silenced on campus. They are shouted down, shamed, interrogated, and cursed. In Muslim countries, meanwhile, such authors are more often jailed, mobbed, murdered or forced into exile.
This state of affairs prompts some urgent questions: Do we want speakers on our campuses to be subjected to such hostility, to run such a gauntlet in order to be heard? (This even as the Western academic world has given a free pass to those who defend the rights of misogynist terrorists who practice both religious and gender apartheid in Islam's name.) Why have so many university presentations descended to the level of the “Jerry Springer” show? Why, when speakers tell the truth about this on American campuses, must they endure harsh and punitive working conditions?
This reality must be exposed, challenged, and transformed. We must condemn militant tactics that aim to suppress speech and not confuse them with a civilized or scholarly exchange of ideas. We must liberate our campuses from such barbarism. Brave voices like Brigitte Gabriel deserve nothing less.
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