A controversy erupted last week in Chicago after it was publicly revealed that a noted anti-Islam blogger, Robert Spencer, had been invited to an American Library Association panel advertised as "dispelling stereotypes about Islam."
Ultimately, the panel was canceled after all the other panelists withdrew. I'll get into that in a minute, but first, who is Robert Spencer?
In his own words:
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch, a program of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and the author of eight books on Islam and jihad.
Spencer is a weekly columnist for Human Events and FrontPage Magazine.
Spencer has also written eleven monographs and well over three hundred articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism. Along with the bestsellers The Truth About Muhammad, Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion (Regnery) and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) (Regnery), he is the author of Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World's Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter); Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery); and Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't (Regnery), a refutation of moral equivalence and call for all the beneficiaries and heirs of Judeo-Christian Western civilization, whatever their own religious or philosophical perspective may be, to defend it from the global jihad.
More recently he has also written monographs for the David Horowitz Freedom Center: What Americans Need to Know About Jihad; The Violent Oppression of Women In Islam (with Phyllis Chesler); Islamic Leaders' Plan for Genocide; and Muslim Persecution of Christians.
In case his one-sided tone and unabashed slant has left you a little queasy, Spencer is sure to add:
"Spencer has been studying Islamic theology, law, and history in depth since 1980."
Longevity equals credibility, eh? (Or put another way, it's been ample time for him to perfect his bias.)
Spencer postures himself as an "Islamic Scholar." But unlike most people we tend to call "scholars," Spencer did not burden himself with the traditional scholarly route that puts an emphasis on objectivity and academic rigor.
There is a good reason for this: his "scholarly" methodologies would not jive in any of our nation's accredited PhD programs let alone a path for tenure where he would have to get his papers peer-reviewed and have his methodology checked by notable scholars for objectivity and a lack of bias (unless, of course, David Horowitz decides to build the David Horowitz Freedom University).
Spencer dismisses such criticism as follows: he is right, and all of the tenured professors of Islamic studies, with their inconvenient knack for unbiased scholarship, are wrong. After all, universities are the establishment of the left-wing liberal conspiracy.
Besides who needs peer-reviewed papers, Spencer seems content to receive rave reviews from Weasel Zippers, Nice Doggie, Atlas Shrugs, Muslims are Terrorists, and of course, frontpagemag.com, that other gem of a creation, and bastion of objectivity, by the guy who cuts his checks.
Now, I will be the first to admit that there are plenty of problems in the Muslim world. I welcome an honest and responsible critique any day. But honest and responsible Spencer's agenda-driven hatemongering is not. I am not not the only one to take issue with Spencer's technique. Most objective scholars and professors of Islamic studies dismiss the guy as laughably fraudulent and amateur.
The independent national media watch group, FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), identifies Spencer as one of the "Dirty Dozen: America's leading Islamophobes" who systematically "spread fear, bigotry, and misinformation." The special report, entitled "Smearcasters" provides examples of Spencer's sensational views.
So let us take a quick look at the crux of Spencer's methodology which is as disingenuous as his conclusions are sensational. In fact, it can be analogized to the three acts of a magic trick as described in the movie The Prestige.
The Set Up: Spencer and his associates scour the web for the most sensational and extreme expressions within the Muslim world. They may be related to a certain extremist interpretation of Islam, or may not even have anything to do with Islam altogether, but that won't matter, so long as the perpetrator is a Muslim, it will do.
The Performance: Spencer then supplants his own commentary on the story which he meticulously crafts with the ultimate goal of convincing his readers that the bizarre incident in question is representative of the faith of Islam and Muslims at large. This subtle leap of faith that he hopes no one notices is the key to his magic act.
The Prestige: He can then rightly claim, with the innocence of a schoolboy, that he does not make up the material he produces, that he is merely quoting things as is, hoping no one notices that he uses the aberrant to define the normative.
Yet, methodology is not the only disingenuous thing about Spencer, his marketing is as well. In selling himself, Spencer engages in double speak where he engages in one tone when riling up his right-wing fan base via his blog, books and documentaries and a whole other tone when hoping to be perceived as credible by the mainstream media.
Consider his most recent interview in which he denies my assertion that he subscribes to the point of view that Islam is evil:
Mr. Spencer challenged that interpretation of his views in an e-mail to The Times.
"Terrorists use the texts and teachings of Islam to make recruits among peaceful Muslims, and to justify their war against the United States and the West. I explore how they do it," he said.
Here he is claiming that he is simply interested in exploring how terrorists abuse Islam. That is an exercise none of us can fault. In fact, if this were truly his premise, I would count myself as a fan. But then you look at his actual work and you don't even need to go beyond their titles to see that he is lying through his back teeth.
Consider his most touted work, Muhammad, founder of the world's most intolerant religion. Note that he does not attribute intolerance and all the other lovely qualities he covers in this book to the extremist ideologies within the Muslim world, but to the basic religion itself. Contrary to what he claims in the above quote, his beef is not with extremists or terrorists like Bin Laden - but with Islam and Muslims. He claims to be an intellectual warrior in the "war on terror" but really brings in the baggage of an apocalyptic preacher out to bash a "rival" faith.
Similarly, consider his film "What the West Needs to Know about Islam," note he does not specify "radical Islam" or "terrorism" but "Islam." Indeed the whole film is dedicated to demonizing just that - Islam - as you can see for yourself if you watch it.
Now let me be clear, if Spencer wishes to take the position that Islam itself is the problem, as opposed to extremist interpretations, fine, he is entitled to that position. But the fact that he would take this position and then lie about it makes him not only a purveyor of medieval polemics, but deceptive on top of that. (I suspect he deceived the ALA in a similar fashion to get the invite.)
Which takes us back to the ALA Panel:
After the panel cancellation Robert Spencer claimed to be a victim of censorship brought about by the acquiescence of the weak-kneed ALA to the ominous and sinister CAIR.
But is that really what happened?
Before we get into the details, let me say this:
It never ceases to amaze me how the likes of Robert Spencer and Michael Savage who gleefully spout off anti-Muslim propaganda touting the freedom of speech card, suddenly feel threatened and victimized when Muslims use their own freedom of speech to respond. Spencer has a right to speak, Savage has a right to speak, and so does CAIR.
Yet when Muslims exercise the same basic rights that the Islamophobes claim to defend on behalf of Western civilization, the Islamophobes somehow cry "Sharia-foul." Their Muslim critics are hitherto branded as "Hamas-linked" or "Terror-linked." No evidence needs be provided, just regurgitation of other people's accusations.
As it so happens, CAIR does not concern itself with censoring or silencing Spencer's earth-shattering truthiness as he routinely claims on his website. Spencer speaks regularly at college campuses at the invitation of student groups like the College Republicans. He publishes books, produces documentaries, and freely blogs on a daily basis.
If anything, CAIR advertises Spencer's website every time it mentions Spencer in a press release, probably helping drive traffic to his website. How does this support Spencer's self-important claim that CAIR is afraid of what he has to say?
CAIR's position is that Spencer's own dismal record speaks for itself.
In fact, CAIR-Chicago's call on the ALA to rescind Spencer's invitation was not about Spencer but about the ALA, specifically: a) questioning why a respectable organization like the ALA would secretly invite an Islam-basher for an event designed to dispel stereotypes about Islam, and b) demanding that the ALA take responsibility for its misrepresentation of the panel event to the other panelists involved and to the public, and to provide an appropriate remedy for their error.
CAIR was not the only one to protest the ALA's inexplicable action, nor was it even the first to do so. Librarians affiliated with the ALA had launched their own protest before CAIR wrote to the ALA, and a Chicago federation of over 50 Islamic organizations later did the same in its own letter to the ALA.
Here are excerpts from my letters to the ALA:
"Would the ALA invite a notorious anti-Semite on a panel that aims to dispel stereotypes against Jews? Would they allow such an invitation to squeeze through under the guise of promoting diversity and averting censorship?
"People are free to hold extreme, bigoted views but whether they should be invited by reputable associations like the ALA to spew these views is a different question. That is the question ALA must answer..."
"We too support freedom of speech, including that of bigots; what we oppose is false advertising. If the ALA was sponsoring a debate on whether Islam is evil and publicized that Mr. Spencer was an invited panelist, we would not have asked to rescind Spencer's invitation, as the sordid nature of the event would have been honestly communicated to all."
"Everyone could then have made informed decisions about whether they wished to be co-panelists or attendees. But that is not what happened."
So what actually happened to get us to this point?
Here are the facts that Spencer has managed to confabulate on his website's rendition of events:
The ALA invited three Muslims three months ago to a panel entitled "Perspectives on Islam: Beyond the Stereotyping" that was scheduled to take place last Sunday during the ALA's annual conference held in Chicago.
The three invitees were Dr. Marcia Hermansen, Director of the Islamic World Studies Program and Professor in the Theology Department Loyola University Chicago; Dr. Esmail Koushanpour Emeritus professor, Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, & Former Executive Director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Greater Chicago; and Dr. Alia Ammar, Chief Neuropsychologist, Geriatric Care Association & member of the Islamic Foundation North.
These three distinguished members of society accepted the invitation eager to help dispel the prevalent stereotypes about their faith and their community. At no point did the ALA bother to inform the Muslim panelists that Spencer -- a guy who makes a living out of promoting those very same stereotypes -- was also invited. As a result, the ALA denied them the opportunity - nay, the right - to make an informed decision on whether they wanted to be part of such a panel, and if they did, then having the time to make the necessary preparations regarding how Spencer's contributions were bound to change the stated nature of the event.
Months later and only days before the event was to take place, Dr. Hermansen discovers by mere chance that Robert Spencer was in fact a fourth panelist. Dr. Hermansen informs the other two panelists and later informs me. Though shocked and disappointed in the ALA's bizarre behavior, she along with Dr. Alia decide to stay on board. The third panelist, Dr. Koushanpour drops out in protest. I write my own letter of protest to the ALA, as the Executive Director of CAIR-Chicago.
On his website, Spencer disputes the fact that the panelists were never informed by the ALA that he would be speaking, but the proof is in the pudding. Here is the email that broke the news to Dr. Hermansen (note the date):
From: Marcia Hermansen
Date: July 6, 2009 8:07:26 AM CDT
Subject: Marcia Hermansen and Robert Spencer
Reply-To: Marcia Hermansen
Thanks--I didn't know about this--I thought I was on an informational panel for librarians--I guess this turns up the heat!
"xxxx" [firstname.lastname@example.org] 07/06/09 3:06 AM >>>
I just found out on from the MELA list that Marcia Hermansen and Robert Spencer will be on an invited panel at the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT) panel at the American Librarians Association annual meeting on July 12.
By that point, librarians and academics who are on the ALA's internal mailing lists had already lodged their own complaint to the ALA via an open letter expressing their concerns and astonishment at the invitation of someone like Spencer to a panel like this. The letter reads in part:
Even the most cursory overview of Mr. Spencer's oeuvre makes it clear that in fact he has no place on a panel whose aim is to dispel stereotypes about Islam. Indeed, we, as librarians, scholars, and individuals are deeply concerned by ALA & EMIERT's choice of Mr. Spencer for such a panel: Mr. Spencer espouses a view of Islam as a system of belief which is essentially violent, undemocratic, totalitarian, exclusive and at war with all non-Muslims. Mr. Spencer in fact goes as far as to equate Islam with fascism.
Hence a question arises as to the justification for inviting a speaker who cannot see anything positive about Islamic beliefs, cultures, societies, histories, etc. to talk to an audience in order to dispel negative views of Islam. We are indeed saddened and puzzled by ALA's choice for their panel, especially in that this appears to be a rare opportunity to educate people about Islam against the backdrop of an overwhelming atmosphere of ignorance, and negative stereotyping (For example a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released right before Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo shows that only 1 in 5 Americans have a favorable view of Islam & 60 percent of Americans believe the Muslim world is at war with the United States).
The Executive Director of the CIOGC, a federation of 50 Muslim organizations protested to the ALA as well:
"Robert Spencer is an Islamophobe and his hateful views, while clearly protected under the First Amendment, are antithetical to promoting diversity. Mr. Spencer promotes hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric. Giving this individual a platform to advance his hate speech on a panel discussion aimed at dispelling stereotypes about Islam is simply wrong.
The remaining two panelists supported those protests and sent in their own. However, they told CAIR-Chicago that they did not intend to withdraw from the panel. CAIR-Chicago did not contest their decision. This fully contradicts Spencer's speculative claim that the panelists were ordered to withdraw by CAIR.
It was not until later, after the panelists felt that the ALA was handling the situation with a lack of professionalism and basic courtesy, that they decided to withdraw.
Here they are in their own words which is a matter of public record:
In announcing her withdrawal, Dr. Marcia Hermansen wrote to the ALA:
"While I heartily endorse the principles of free expression and diversity of viewpoints that are part of the ALA mission, the way in which this information session about Islam and Muslims for Ethnic and Multi-Cultural librarians was modified and politicized at the last moment raises serious concerns about the integrity of the session."
Dr. Alia Ammar wrote:
"Given the substantial changes in the composition, subject, and direction of the ALA panel to which I was invited to present as well as the blatant misinformation provided regarding the purpose of the session, it would [be] untenable to present in your forum...The lack of professionalism with which this matter has been handled has been wholly disappointing as the efforts of the originally invited panelists to reach a respectable solution to the problem were simply ignored. In light of these developments, I respectfully decline to participate in the panel."
As a result, the ALA decided to cancel the event.
So there you have it, the real account of what transpired. There is only one piece of the puzzle left missing. How did a guy like Spencer end up on a panel organized by the ALA in the first place?
My sources tell me that he was added at the behest of Ellen Zyroff of San Diego, head of a group called the Jewish Librarians, and a Zionist activist. She reportedly lobbied the ALA to invite Spencer arguing that "their side needed to be represented." Now this is a panel called "Perspectives on Islam: Beyond the Stereotyping." So the question becomes, what is that alternative perspective she wishes to see represented? That stereotypes about Islam should be promoted rather than dispelled? And what does she mean by "their side" anyway? What do Zionist activists have to do with Islam?
Having received this tip, I am of the opinion that the ALA did not act with ill-intent in associating with Spencer, but was merely guilty of being oblivious to his discredited record, as well as failing to adequately challenge Zyroff's reasoning for suggesting him.
They began to realize who Spencer really was after other librarians protested, but he had already been invited. The ALA, reluctant to disinvite him and be accused of censorship, felt stuck with the invitation. By not telling the other panelists, perhaps they hoped to minimize the damage.
But when the panelists found out about it only a few days before the event, the ALA found itself in even more trouble than it had on its hands before.
Moving forward, the ALA needs to acknowledge its mistake, apologize to the panelists and the public, and institute more robust standards in order to engage the communities it serves. It also needs to ensure transparent measures to protect itself from being blindsided by cynical agenda-driven maneuvers like the one Zyroff allegedly pulled off.
As for Spencer, he is likely to continue to feel victimized by others speaking out against his one-track innuendo. I would not be surprised if he were to read this piece only to respond with a juvenile personal attack against me on his hate blog. As usual, he will be joined by the usual cacophony of blogger friends from the Islamophobic blogosphere followed by a love fest in the comments section.