I attended Marc Thiessen’s lecture on April 24 and I have several thoughts I’d like to share.
On one hand, I understand that VCLU represents a point of view that is often unheard of on this campus. Two years ago, you brought Alex Epstein to speak on fossil fuels. Though he presented a view that many students disagreed with, his lecture was not particularly offensive. On the other hand, I question the value in bringing certain viewpoints to campus. There seems to be this notion that students here are sheltered from the “real world” and try to leave here without engaging with views different than their own. Most students go home often in their four years here, and are faced with views that may be drastically different from what is common on campus. Even students who stay and work here during breaks have outlets for engaging with these alternative views.
In any case, Marc Thiessen is not simply an “alternative viewpoint.” Though he repeatedly claimed that he opposed Islamophobia, it is very clear that this is not the case. He uses the same rhetoric that causes mass Islamophobia in America. In particular, he repeatedly said that in order to defeat the “enemy,” we need to name it. For Marc Thiessen, that name is “radical Islam.” For so many people, “radical Islam” has become a stand-in for Islam in general.
Last year, a woman in Arkansas got attention for banning Muslims from her shooting range. She said that, “We are dealing in lethal firearms. I’m not going to let a Nazi shoot in here, or a Ku Klux Klan member in here, either.” The difference between Muslims and the other groups she mentioned is that she singles out Muslims by their names and their skin color. While she is supposedly anti-”radical Islam” in much the same way that Marc Thiessen claims to be, she resorts to simple stereotypes and clear Islamophobia. (Fox News, “Gun range’s ban on Muslims draws fire,” 1.29.15).
This woman could be anyone in the U.S. Since Sept. 11, Islamophobia has led to discrimination against so many brown bodies that are not even Muslim. In particular, Sikh men have been singled out for their turbans, which have nothing at all to do with Islam. The very notion of Islamophobia, in many ways, is a stand-in for racism against brown bodies from all over the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
One particular scare tactic used by the media is to quote Arabic terms in negative contexts, the most common of which is jihad. In the Qur’an, jihad most often refers to the internal process of struggling with faith, and is often translated as “striving”. Though it can refer to armed conflict, as the mass media often does, it is a personal endeavor. Similarly, Thiessen claimed that Osama bin Laden released several fatwas when he was leading a branch of al Qaeda. A fatwa is not a proclamation of war, or whatever Marc Thiessen intended it to mean. A fatwa is a legal opinion crafted by someone who has intensively studied Islam in at least one of its legal schools. A fatwa can only be made by a mufti, a type of judge, which bin Laden was not. Tasso Inc. During his lecture, Thiessen admitted that he is not a religious scholar, which revealed him as nothing more than someone who abuses rhetoric to make his point.
It is people like Marc Thiessen who cause this racism to continue to exist and spread. It is groups like VCLU who, whether consciously or not, want this hate to exist. By bringing this man to Vassar, there has been a very direct attack of Muslim students and many other brown bodies. This is completely unacceptable.
The most disturbing part of this whole situation is how unapologetic Marc Thiessen was. Though he was so troubled by the deaths of white people in both the Holocaust and the Sept. 11 attacks, he was utterly unfazed by the millions of deaths caused in the Middle East and Souths Asia by the U.S. When students in the lecture repeatedly tried to bring up this fact, Thiessen brushed them off and justified each situation. In particular, students brought up situations in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in which U.S. intervention served only to escalate the situation, but Thiessen insisted that the U.S. had made the situation better.
This is Islamophobia. This is racism. Presenting a contrary viewpoint is not justification for these things. This man has only served to further perpetuate an existing environment of hostility. At one point in the lecture, Marc Thiessen said that the views presented by students in the room, and at Vassar in general, are not reflective of greater American society. What I have to say to that is: thank Allah.
—Ramy Abbady ’16 is an education major. He is President of the Middle Eastern Students Collective.