Karen Arenson has an article in The New York Times this morning about the film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” which she calls “the latest flashpoint in the bitter campus debate over the Middle East.”
The film shows anti-Western clips from Arab television programming and documentary footage of suicide bombers, at times comparing militant Islam to the Nazi movement. Many campus groups—mostly Hillels and other Jewish student organizations—have organized showings of “Obsession” at their universities. As Arenson reports, both the film’s message and the pro-Israeli nature of the viewings have sparked debate among students about Middle Eastern issues.
Arenson writes that Pace University administrators pressured the Hillel to cancel a showing of the film in November, and SUNY Stony Brook also decided against showing the film.
FIRE’s president Greg Lukianoff, quoted in the article, said, “The situation in the Middle East has been a major issue on campus for decades, but the heat has noticeably turned up lately.”
It was just one year ago, in February 2006, that the Mohammed cartoon controversy hit campuses nationwide. While most universities dealt with the situation in a reasonable manner, others censored professors, banned reproductions of the cartoons, and even fired a student editor for printing the cartoons in the campus newspaper.
On the heels of the cartoon controversy came several debates over student art exhibits tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In April, 2006, Penn State censored a student’s art exhibit called “Portraits of Terror,” which depicted Palestinian violence against Israelis; the following month, Brandeis censored an exhibit entitled “Voices from Palestine,” featuring Palestinian children’s paintings of Israeli violence. Brandeis has continued to skew the campus debate by establishing an administrative post to monitor speakers addressing the Brandeis campus about the Middle East.
Arenson also mentions the current case at San Francisco State University (SFSU), where the College Republicans are being charged with incitement and creating a hostile environment for stepping on Hamas and Hezbollah flags during an anti-terrorism rally on campus. SFSU is trying to skirt the fact that flag-stomping is a constitutionally protected act of political protest, claiming that because the flags bear the Arabic word “Allah,” the College Republicans’ actions represented religious desecration. As FIRE has made clear, however, public institutions cannot prosecute students for violating religious mores any more than they can prosecute students for political expression.
Debates over the Middle East have certainly taken center stage at many institutions, and with university administrators taking sides by punishing students or threatening action against those whose expression does not match the prevailing campus ideology, these debates too often segue into repression on campus.