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San Jose State MSA Speaks Out Against “Educator”

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Never stay silent in the face of falsehood!Having taken extensive notes and recorded this lecture, I found that Esman not only portrayed Muslims as un-educated and as anti-Semitic towards Jews, but she also blamed the Muslims for spreading anti-American sentiments in Muslim countries. Esman had also painted Muslims as physically abusive towards their spouses, and she portrayed Muslim families – women in particular – as oppressive, causing their children to flee from them.

Never stay silent in the face of falsehood!Universities are known as centers of learning – centers that both uncover and spread knowledge. But what happens when you are confronted with a negative message and are being taught inaccurate information? At San Jose State University on September 16th, 2010, this dilemma occurred in the worst of ways. Expert of history Dr. Roth invited a journalist and novelist, Abigail Esman, to speak on extremist Muslims. I attended the event, and I ended up being the only identifiable Muslim in a crowd of 100 people.

Abigail Esman is a Jewish woman who was wearing a pashmina shawl around her shoulders, as if implying some sort of solidarity with Muslims. Her words were the only noise in the room, and they left me speechless and infuriated by the end of the night. Esman claims that extremist Islam is easily understood if you look at the Muslim Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny), who was “both a military and spiritual leader”. She stated that “7-10% of all Muslims are extremists”, and that moderate Muslims support the extremist ideology.

Where Esman gets her data and information from was not relayed to the audience.

I looked around the auditorium in which this event took place, and I found a man in an army suit, another proudly wearing his yarmulke, and many white Americans aged 50 and older. There were almost no young students in the room, or people of color. Initially I thought to myself, “This is exactly the kind of crowd that needs to hear both sides of the story.” But then Esman continued: “Education in the arts helps us to build our imagination, it helps people to think abstractly, the whole idea of compassion…when you read poetry you are taught to interpret it. This is something that is not taught in the Middle East and in Muslim countries.”

Esman was trying hard to portray Muslims as simple-minded, uneducated, and easily influenced by anything they read or hear. At one point, she tried to illustrate anti-Semitic tendencies of Muslims towards the Jewish people by sharing a tale of an ex-Muslim woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped an arranged marriage. Ali met and asked Esman if she could meet a Jew – and Esman used that to imply that the woman did not believe the nasty things she was taught from Muslims about Jewish people, and wanted to prove that Jews were kind, normal people like herself.

Having taken extensive notes and recorded this lecture, I found that Esman not only portrayed Muslims as un-educated and as anti-Semitic towards Jews, but she also blamed the Muslims for spreading anti-American sentiments in Muslim countries. Esman had also painted Muslims as physically abusive towards their spouses, and she portrayed Muslim families – women in particular – as oppressive, causing their children to flee from them.

CAIR prompted me to complain about this event. I had left the auditorium that night almost heart-broken, realizing that knowledge can be used to manipulate, generalize, and misinform the masses – even in such an honorable institution as a University. I was naïve and expected the Professor who hosted the event to see my side, especially because he was an expert on history. Wouldn’t the professor know about the creative, brilliant minds of the Middle East that prompted algebra, chemistry, and modern-day medicine?

I wrote a letter to the host, Dr.Roth, and to my dismay the professor wrote:

“In response to your letter on behalf of the Muslim Students Association regarding the talk given by Abigail Esman, let me say that the agenda of our University is to allow the free exchange of ideas, not to please you or your organization. If the intent of your email was to try and convince the President or the university to prevent speakers such as Ms. Esman from coming to campus, this is not going to happen. The agenda of our university allows you the freedom to object to what a speaker says, or to invite a speaker who has a different point of view, but the Muslim Student Association has no say in who is, or is not, invited to speak on Islam. Criticisms of Islam, whether extremist or not, or of Mohammed or of any of your religious or cultural views are perfectly acceptable in an academic context.”

Dr. Roth went on repeating himself in case I hadn’t understood him in the first few sentences. I was merely trying to point out the obvious dilemmas in Esman’s lecture. I wanted to be consoled at least once in his reply that he would do justice to the situation and clarify the misrepresentations of Muslims and the Middle East. Instead, Dr. Roth concluded by saying:

“Neither you personally, nor your organization, nor indeed Muslims as a group, have any authority to dictate to me or to the university on matters of Islamic history or culture.”

I am just one voice. I know I can’t change everybody’s mind on the issue of mutual respect and understanding. I have never even been to the Middle East. I am no expert on Islam, history, or even on article-writing. I know now that taking the step to express my thoughts put fire under this man’s feet. He seemed upset and so was I. But the issue remains: are we going to just let educators spread negative messages about Muslims and the Middle East? Are they too prestigious as educators that we don’t have the right to speak out against them? I conclude with this quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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