Saturday, March 17, 2007

The censorship of the study of anti-Semitism

I will reproduce here two letters I've written this week, one to Lord Melvyn Bragg, cultural icon and Chancellor of Leeds University, and an earlier one to Professor Michael Arthur, the Leeds Vice-Chancellor. As many of you will know by now, a lecture and workshop that were due to have been given in Leeds last week by Dr. Matthias Küntzel of the Hebrew University's Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, were cancelled by the university on the grounds of 'security'. The subject was to have been Islamic Anti-Semitism, a keen research interest of my own, and tghe event would have taken place over three days in the university's German department. Some Muslims (possibly students, it isn't clear), perhaps a couple, perhaps many more, had objected to the sessions being given, and it looks fairly certain that the university administration, fearful of a protest and perhaps violence, caved in without even so much as a consultation. It is hard to understand what these Muslims thought they were protesting about in the first place. That a university should dare fulfil its obligation to provide a safe environment in which ideas can be explored? That someone in a university was going to say, heaven forbid, that many Muslims in the Middle East are flagrant anti-Semites? That this might somehow impinge on the dignity of Islam? That Dr. Küntzel might in passing refer to Qur'anic verses and hadiths of a less-than-friendly disposition towards Jews?

My own experience in researching and teaching in the field of religious studies has given me many memories of how easy it is to offend some religious people. My job as a teacher of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle was terminated when my sponsors, the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education, decided they didn't like me teaching two 'heretical' subjects, Shi'ism and Sufsim (as well as half of a course on the sociology of religion, which I devoted to my own 'expert' subject of Baha'ism). I've had flak from the other side as well. That's because the academic study of religion must, by definition, pass the limits of what believers may feel to be proper.

But Dr. Küntzel's seminar wasn't even about Islam as such. It was about a genuine evil, namely the ubiquitous presence of anti-Semitic tropes and images in parts of the Muslim world, especially Egypt, the Palesinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and, of course, Iran. That is exactly the sort of subject any respectable university should wish to encourage. It is topical, it involves detailed analysis of history (links between Islamism and the Third Reich), it offers possibilities for serious textual analysis and theory-based commentary on film, television, and cartoon imagery (why, for example, do Arabs, who are Semites and share Semitic features with many Jews, choose to depict Jews with hooked noses, a trope taken directly from the Third Reich, where the hooked nose was an exaggerated emblem of non-Aryan status?), it leads into a discussion of the differences and similarities between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israelism. It is a valid academic subject, but, without warning, a university chooses to remove it from its campus.

Does any of this relate to Israel? You bet it does. Understanding this legacy involves a study of the way the Muslim Brotherhood and some of the Palestinian leadership (above all Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jersualem) chose to ally themselves with the Nazis and how, after World War II this support for fascism mutated into bitter anti-Zionism and imitation of fascist methods. Today, members of Hamas and Hizbullah use the Hitlergrüss salute, something only neo-Nazi groups do in Europe or North America. Knowing this helps us place a different interpretation on anti-Israel rhetoric and behaviour. To say it's a pity Hitler didn't finish the job and kill all Jews in the world, and then to claim 'I'm only anti-Israel, not anti-Semitism' is to stretch credulity. Yet Western journalists and politicians seem to fall for this line every time. Unless and until we learn to see through this smokescreen of 'anti-Israelism' to the underlying Judaeophobia, we will go on praising some of our very worst enemies. Because these people aren't just anti-Semitic. They are fascists, who hate democracy, freedom, and the rule of law in sovereign states. They are as much enemies of Western civilization as Hitler and his mafia were in the 1930s and 40s. When a British university thinks it better to avoid controversy than to open up debate about a reality that threatens its core freedoms, then it's time to ask just where we are all headed.

Here are the two letters, for what they are worth:

Lord Bragg of Wigton,
The University of Leeds.

Dear Lord Bragg,

I am copying here a letter (via e-mail) that I sent some days ago to Professor Michael Arthur, the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University, on what is now becoming a notorious instance of capitulation to outside pressure to cancel a legitimate and (many may say) crucial academic venture. As my letter to Professor Arthur points out, I had myself given a lecture under almost exactly the same title last Saturday, and have researched in this area myself, so I feel qualified to argue the appropriateness of Dr Küntzel's research and lecturing.

I fully understand your non-administrative position within the university, but I'm convinced that the implications of this ban for the wider world of academe and culture are so great that the incident threatens to bring the university into disrepute (and, indeed, has already done so in some circles). Hence my writing to you in the hope that some form of intervention on your part may lead to a fresh invitation being extended to Dr. Küntzel and, should he accept, a three-day workshop being held on the Leeds campus, followed perhaps by a public lecture on this vital subject. Should this be done with appropriate publicity within the university, and if both the workshop and the lecture (or lectures) should be attended by larger numbers, it would serve both an academic and educational purpose, by alerting audiences to the existence throughout the Middle East of a virulent form of anti-Semitism that is ubiquitous, mainstream, popular, and derived in its largest part from the tropes and images of the Third Reich. It is inconceivable to me that any university should seek to favour objections to such information and to put a gag on the bearer of what may be an unwelcome message, yet a hugely relevant one for modern society. Forms of Islamic anti-Semitism have already moved to Europe and North America, making all the greater the relevance of this message to a British university in a city that has bred Islamist terrorists.

I hope you will at least speak to the university authorities on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin
Royal Literary Fund Fellow
Newcastle University


Dear Vice-Chancellor,

May I begin by introducing myself as a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University, where I am currently the Royal Literary Fund Fellow.

I have just received news of a decision made by Leeds University to cancel a talk and 2-day workshop series by Dr. Matthias Kuentzel of Hebrew University, both under the title 'Hitler's Legacy: Islamic Antisemitism in the Middle East'. Having myself given a lecture on Islamic Antisemitism a few days ago, I am horrified and outraged by this decision. As an academic who has struggled with religious pressures to censor and exercise control within my field, I place a high value on academic freedom within Western universities. I appreciate those freedoms the more for having studied at Shiraz University in Iran and taught at Mohammed V University in Fez, Morocco, where such freedoms are absent. An academic book of my own has recently been blocked from publication due to pressure brought on the publishers by a religious group. That is how keenly I feel about censorship contaminating the realm of academia, and why, in part, I am spurred to write to you in these terms. Academic freedom is the very foundation of all work carried in universities and colleges, and without it, as I know you must be very well aware, the entire project of unbiased, free, and honest academic teaching and research slips into degradation and abuse.

Since it is a research interest of my own, I can testify that the subject on which Dr. Kuentzel was due to speak is one of considerable importance, both academically and as a topic for public and governmental interest. Not to study it and not to debate it opens up a glaring gap in our knowledge of the Middle East, our understanding of Islam, and our analysis of Muslim relations with the West and with the Jewish community in particular. Anti-Semitism is in itself a subject studied internationally in numerous centres, and one about which innumerable books and articles have been written. Much of that latter work has originated in the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, at which Dr. Kuentzel works. It is beyond my comprehension that a scholar with his credentials, affiliated to such a centre and such a university, speaking on a topic of vital academic and general interest should be barred from speaking simply because a pressure group with blatantly vested interests has complained. What will be next? No lectures on Iranian nuclear strategy because someone in the Iranian embassy made a phone call to someone in your office? A lecture on animal research in your faculty of biological sciences cancelled because an animal rights group threatens to stage a protest?

I cannot believe that you yourself would for one moment consider letting outside interests exercise the least influence over the content of academic courses or guest lectures in any other context. Yet it has happened at your university, and I for one feel betrayed by that. If someone invites me to lecture at Leeds on this or a related topic, will I now be automatically persona non grata? Will I have to submit the text of my lecture to a censorship committee beforehand?

I wish to be reassured as to what action you and the university propose to take to remedy this serious breach of academic principle. I intend to forward details to the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, of which I am a long-standing member. They may in due course contact you as well. I do hope you can find a way to put this matter right, regardless of pressure from within or without your institution. I place my trust in you to do so.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

Supporter, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East
Patron, Friends of Israel Academic Study Group on the Middle East

No comments: