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Pipes wrench: an RIT debate on extremism


Daniel Pipes, a conservative academic and über-pundit on all things Middle Eastern, will be speaking April 14 at the Rochester Institute of Technology, as part of the school's Gannett Lecture Series. And back in December, Pipes was declaring on his website that his appearance was "already generating more heat than light."

            Pipes' shtick relies heavily on his reputed prediction abilities (he was one of only a few voices warning about militant Islam before the 9/11 terrorist attacks). But this time he may be wrong.

            If he is, it will be because of the proactive steps taken by RIT students.

It's no easy task to try introducing Pipes in a sentence or two. In addition to his gigs as a talking head on shows like the O'Reilly Factor, he's written regular columns for the Jerusalem Post, the New York Post, and currently the New York Sun, among others. He's director at the Middle East Forum, which describes its mission as being "to define and promote American interests in the Middle East." That think tank recently launched Campus Watch, a project to monitor academic activity in Middle East Studies departments on North American campuses; opponents call it a "blacklist" of academics with opposing views. He's also written a dozen books and sits on numerous boards, including, through presidential appointment, the US Institute of Peace.

            That last one struck more than a few people as a bit incongruous when it was announced nearly two years ago. After all, Pipes was quoted at the time in Mother Jones as giving this prescription for Middle East peace at a Zionist conference: "How is a change of heart achieved? It is achieved by an Israeli victory and a Palestinian defeat."

            "The Palestinians need to be defeated even more than Israel needs to defeat them."

            Pipes has also raised eyebrows by calling for religious profiling --- and writing favorably about World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps --- and for stating that American Muslim groups are actively seeking to take over the United States. In an article titled "The Islamic States of America?" and reprinted on his website, he says: "That goal is to apply the Islamic law (the Shari'a) globally. In US terms, it intends to replace the Constitution with the Qur'an."

            With statements like that on record, it's not difficult to see why his RIT speaking engagement is evoking consternation from the campus Muslim Student Association.

            On March 23 the MSA, along with several other groups, sponsored a teach-in featuring local Christian Peacemaker Teams activist Kathleen Kern and Muslim Public Affairs Council National Director Ahmed Younis in response to the Pipes appearance. The event was billed as a discussion of academic freedom, but it was really more a protest of Pipes' views.

            "The whole talk was about extremism," says Younis, who flew to Rochester from Washington, DC, to speak.

            "The mistake that the students were making is [thinking] that it's all about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he says. "It's about extremism."

            Younis, like many American Muslims, sees Pipes' views as among the most extreme.

            Although Pipes contends that he targets only certain violent elements within Islam, Younis says "he's painting in broad-brush strokes to vilify the whole Muslim community."

            But despite such objections to Pipes' message, Younis's own message to the students was clear: "I was very, very adamant that they should not be disrupting his speech," he says. "They should let the man speak and they should then address his message, not attack him."

            Ammar Abbas Naqvi, the president of RIT's Muslim Student Association, says his group hadn't planned to disrupt the speech

            "Our intentions weren't and will never be to 'block' or 'dis-invite' Pipes," he says. "We need to make a distinction between protesting Pipes and protesting his ideas and the negative consequences of his ideas. We will try to add the balance to the talk, since he has no other speaker with him with an opposing viewpoint."

            Still, Naqvi says he was pleased with the protest event.

            "I think the teach-in went pretty well," he says. "We were enlightened and encouraged to be more open to dialogue and reason. We learned a great deal, and the event was a success."

            Younis agrees. "I don't want to fly to places just to protest Daniel Pipes speaking, because I have more important things to do," he says. "But I do want to go to places where Daniel Pipes' presence creates the opportunity for informed, intelligent discussion of issues affecting American Muslims."

Dr. AJ Caschetta, a professor in RIT's language and literature department who was instrumental in bringing Pipes to the campus, shares Younis's desire for such discussion, but not his views of Pipes.

            "Clearly, I disagree with the premise that Pipes is an extremist," he says. Caschetta says he's read much of Pipes' work and has assigned one of his books, Militant Islam Reaches America, to classes since 2002.

            "Out of roughly 450 students, none has found any traces of racism, bigotry, or Islamophobia there," he says, "and this includes not a small number of Muslim students, by the way."

            "I have found that those who criticize Daniel Pipes are those who have not read his work, but rather who follow the talking points of the Anti-War group or the Socialist Club or some other entity which tries to control debate and thought," he says.

The issue of balance is at the heart of the discussion surrounding Pipes' appearance. The evening after the MSA event, as part of the Gannett series, Dr. Ali Mazrui of SUNY Binghamton and Cornell University delivered a lecture on whether a "clash of civilizations" really exists between Islam and the West.

            RIT had hoped to have Mazrui and Pipes on the same program, but at his campus appearances, Pipes refuses to be "balanced" by other speakers. "My major purpose in going to universities like UW-Madison and RIT," he says on his website, "is to offer a different point of view from what students usually hear."

            "I dislike the idea of balance," he wrote, "because, 1) it cuts into my time, and 2), it implies that my views need to be wrapped and controlled. Or, as Rush Limbaugh puts it, 'I don't need equal time, I am equal time!'" At RIT, Pipes will give his lecture and then entertain questions from the audience.

            Prof. Paul Grebinger, who organizes the lecture series, defends the arrangement; the Q-and-A session will allow for plenty of dialogue and debate, he says.

            "The potential still exists for a pretty good exchange," he says. "I'm particularly interested in how the students respond."

            As to acceding to Pipes' unusual requirement that no one else share the stage, Grebinger says it's not unique. "You generally try to accommodate the individual who is the focus of the event," he says.

            Caschetta is also happy with final arrangement of the lectures.

            "In my opinion, the way things have worked is perfect: Mazrui had his say, and now Pipes will have his," he says. "Our students are bright enough to hear both sides and decide for themselves which man is the credible historian and which is the extremist."

            And while Pipes has critics at RIT, Caschetta has his concerns about Mazrui. He went to the Mazrui lecture, he says, and "found it to be an embarrassment."

            "Among other things," says Caschetta, "he defended suicide bombings," compared the United States to Nazi Germany, and claimed that "the culture of Islam has liberated and empowered women to a greater degree than the Western world." Mazrui didn't mention "dramatic realities such as female genital mutilation and temporary wives," says Caschetta.

A broad gamut of groups --- from Rochester's Muslim community to RIT's Hillel chapter --- is cautiously awaiting Pipes' speech.

            "I don't agree with a lot of what he has to say," says Hillel president AJ Siegel. "I think he tends to generalize so much."

            Siegel, who says his group and the Muslim Student Association are beginning to plan events together, wishes the school would book more moderate speakers.

            "It's a matter of finding them that's really the challenge," he says, adding: "The two extremes won't get [us] anywhere."

            That's a sentiment shared by Dr. Mohammed Shafiq. The executive director and imam of the Rochester Islamic Center, and executive director of the Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College, where he teaches, says he is disappointed with the publicity generated by such polarizing figures as Pipes.

            "When you speak a divisive language, people write about you; when you speak a language of humanity, they don't," he says. "People who work for peace and community understanding don't get covered by the media."

            The divisive language that generates coverage for Pipes and his views both harms society and undermines genuine efforts by these unheralded community builders, he says.

            "Every sane person knows that this is not the language we should be using," Shafiq says. "We must reach more harmony between religions as we become a more pluralistic society. What we need is not to confirm these extreme views but to heal them."

Daniel Pipes will deliver his talk, "Militant Islam and the War on Terror," at 7:30 p.m. April 14 in the Webb Auditorium in Building 7A, Room 1350. It is free and open to the public. Information: 475.2057 or