When Chapel Hill-based non-profit Extraordinary Ventures hosted anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant speaker Diana West, many in the local community were saddened by that decision. West was invited by a virulent anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant organizations called ICON (Issues Confronting Our Nation). In the past, ICON has invited bigoted speakers such as Roy Beck, Mark Krikorian, and John Guandolo.
A group of 24 organizations and individuals signed a letter that was emailed to EV requesting them to reconsider their decision to host Diana West and future lectures by ICON. Individual community members emailed and called the facility, urging them not to promote hate speech. Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor at the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, wrote:
“We are disappointed that EV has chosen to host Diana West. I support free speech and a healthy diversity of opinions. However, there is a clear difference between free speech and hate speech. Hate speech traffics in incendiary rhetoric, dangerous stereotyping, and stirs up fear and demonizing of others. It creates the social and psychological conditions for hate crimes and other acts of violence, which we have witnessed in our own community and across the nation. Diana West’s speeches and written statements fall outside the range of acceptable discourse on the place of Islam in our society. They are irresponsible and inflammatory, and it was a mistake not to have properly vetted her before allowing her a public platform for her dangerous views.”
Veteran social justice organizer and the founding member of Black Workers for Justice, Ajamu Dillahunt, made the following argument to EV:
“It is a sad irony that a space that I see as somewhat sacred will be desecrated. I say this because each year I attend a Chinese New Year celebration with kind and loving people who are Taichi practitioners. With our friends and families we have celebrated our practice and each other. Bringing Diana West there and the hateful people who support her views and are a danger to Muslims in our community is a situation that we ask you to change, even at this late date.”
Freedom of Speech versus Hate Speech
Not every local activist agreed with calling on EV to cancel the speech. Veteran activist Chuck Fager from Quaker House defended Diana West and ICON lecture series in the name of “freedom of speech.” He argued that in the absence of a clear and present danger, such speech should be permitted, and that hate speech should be defeated by “more speech.”
Of course, a private venue cancelling an event featuring a speaker who promotes anti-Muslim bigotry does not threaten that speaker’s freedom of speech, which is protected by law. West has a website, writes books, and is regularly invited to radio-shows and events by her constituents. EV and local activists have no power to restrict West’s freedom of speech. But EV can refuse to provide a platform for West’s hate, which poses a significant threat to Muslims and immigrants.
We live in a society where a significant number of people are poorly informed about Islam and Muslims, and where some people, harboring extremely negative opinions about Muslims, are compelled to carry out hate attacks against Muslims. The fact that people like West are portrayed as “experts” on Islam and invited to liberal venues, leads to further validation of anti-Muslim bigotry and normalizes anti-Muslim culture.
Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha lost two daughters and son-in-law last year, as a result of what he believes to be an anti-Muslim hate crime. Dr. Abu-Salha was categorical about Diana West’s speech in Chapel Hill. “Diana West’s speeches in the name of freedom of speech, are one of the many reasons my children are dead,” said Dr. Abu-Salha, in Durham-based The Herald-Sun‘s report of West’s speech.
Protest Against Diana West’s Speech
Despite difference of opinion on the question of freedom of speech versus hate speech, almost all social justice allies agreed on the right to protest Diana West and ICON lecture series. A protest was organized outside EV on the day of the speech that invited about 15 protesters from organizations like Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia (MERI), Muslims for Social Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace – Triangle NC, Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East (AIME), Balance and Accuracy in Journalism (BAJ) and NC Stop Torture Now. Protesters held signs that said “Free Speech is Not Hate Speech”, “United Against Racism and Islamophobia”, “NC Jewish Community United Against Islamophobia”, and “Hateful Words are Seeds, They Grow into Violent Deeds”.
The campaign against Diana West and ICON lecture series bore fruit. Many Triangle community members learned about anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant forces like Diana West and ICON lecture series as a result of this campaign. This is despite the fact that ICON has been inviting anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant speakers to the Triangle area for the last three years. Extraordinary Ventures did recognize community outrage in response to West’s speech. They were quoted in The Herald-Sun, saying, “The people of Extraordinary Ventures do apologize and promise to do a better job in the future vetting potential customers.”
There is still a long way to go in order to overcome hatred. Extraordinary Ventures is scheduled to host five speakers by ICON Lecture Series in the year 2017, including anti-immigrant bigot Mark Krikorian. Rather than just being reactive, social justice allies believe they have to be proactive in building a society free of Islamophobia, racism and other forms of oppression. Inviting speakers and organizing events to highlight how anti-Muslim bigotry operates in our society, how it is linked to other forms of oppression, and how to defeat these forces, is an essential next step. Community organizers believe they need to work tirelessly to build a society based on peace and love. In the words of MLK Jr., “We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”
Manzoor Cheema is a Fellow at the Center for New Community.