An Open Letter Regarding Michael Graham's Speech
Issue   |   Tue, 10/03/2017 - 23:03

Boston Herald columnist Michael Graham, along with two other speakers, was invited campus last Wednesday, Sept. 27 to speak about “Why Military Action After 9/11 Was Justified and Saved American Lives.” This was despite the many Islamophobic comments Graham has made in the past, such as “Islam is a terrorist organization,” “Moderate Muslims are those who only want to kill Jews” and “The problem is not extremism. The problem is Islam.” His presence on campus was extremely unsettling and disturbing for students who identify as Muslim, as well as other minorities on campus, and we question the decision of certain members of the Amherst community to invite someone who is so overtly Islamophobic and hateful onto our campus.

On Wednesday, Graham himself admitted to the fact that he has never read the Qur’an, claiming that he doesn’t “ever pretend to understand Muslim theology.” This did not stop him from claiming that Islam is an inherently violent religion, repeatedly saying, “Every rational person should acknowledge that Islam is the only major world religion with terror committed in its name.” When audience members brought up the KKK or the Rohingya Muslim massacre being perpetrated by the Buddhists in Myanmar, he insisted that the KKK was just a “minority group” within Christianity and that the perpetrators of the Rohingya massacre “are not Buddhist actors, they’re actors who happened to also be Buddhist,” a line of reasoning he refused to use when it came to the terrors committed in the name of Islam. His bias against Islam was very obvious. He repeatedly claimed that “there is a civil war going on in Islam right now,” implying that Islam is limited to a war-torn geographical region, going as far as to support claims that “all Afghans are wired differently from the rest of the world,” and that Tunisia is the same as Libya just because “it is right next to it.”

In light of the remarks made by Graham and other speakers on our campus, we are calling for increased awareness and respect for students with vulnerable identities, especially students who identify as Muslim. While we are aware that we cannot control the hatred that exists in this world, we do know that we can control whether this hatred is propagated on our campus. No student should ever have to feel afraid for their safety or have to wake up in the morning knowing that there are other students on this campus who hate them for an integral part of their identity and are willing and able to voice these hurtful ideas on a public platform. We refuse to sweep these aggressions under the rug; we refuse to accept quietly the blatantly inaccurate statements made by Graham. Rather, we would like to call for certain measures to ensure that a climate of respect and understanding for people of all identities is maintained.

The issue is not only what Graham expressed, but how he was able to express fictitious, hateful views here. This is an issue of accountability, both on the parts of student organizations, who host speakers, and the administration, which carries a responsibility to safeguard the interests of its students. When deciding to bring speakers to campus, student organizations should conduct research beforehand to ensure that the speaker shares the views of the organization and will not subject individuals to hateful rhetoric. They should question or challenge the speaker if their views begin to deviate from the organization’s to allow for a productive discourse. Finally, they should acknowledge after the fact if these viewpoints do not align with those of the organization and have caused harm to members of the Amherst College community.

In addition, the administration especially has a responsibility to consider the vulnerability of Muslim, international, Middle Eastern and South Asian individuals on campus. The Student Code of Conduct lists discriminatory acts against an individual’s religious, national and ethnic identities as a violation, as well as when these discriminatory acts “cause an interference with the affected person or group’s educational or employment opportunities.” Moving forward, there needs to be conversation regarding the role of the administration in protecting its students from bigotry and prejudice.

In short, there is a difference between a respectful discussion between two opposing viewpoints and discriminatory, unfounded non-arguments. We need to critically think about why we are bringing speakers to campus, what they can or cannot contribute and how they can positively or negatively impact members of the Amherst College community. We cannot simply ignore the fact that we belong to a collection of perspectives and identities and that we are accountable to all members of this community.

Since a significant number of students as well as faculty and staff clearly felt hurt and disrespected as a direct result of this event, we feel that the Amherst College Republicans (ACR) should have written a public response to the student body and the affected groups promptly after the event. In addition, we feel that a dialogue prior to the event with the relevant student groups — especially the Muslim Students Association (MSA), but also other groups such as South Asian Students Association (SASA), Middle East Studies and Student Association (MESSA) and International Students Association (ISA) — would have been conducive to finding a productive and appropriate speaker qualified to speak on this topic while still keeping the perspective that ACR wanted to share through this event. Whether ACR felt that Graham’s perspective aligned with their own or not, an apology is warranted; the group invited a a speaker to present to the Amherst College community, with knowledge of his previous Islamophobic views and his past record of spreading hate speech towards Muslims and other minority groups present on our campus. To our disappointment, ACR has neither addressed the hate speech that occurred nor retracted their endorsement of the event.

As the affected communities move past this event, we hope for healing and the spread of kindness, acceptance and empathy. We believe the Amherst student body as a whole does not fall victim to the belief that Islamophobia should be acceptable on our campus. Rather, we as a community embrace diversity and inclusion, despite occasional fumbles such as the Graham event. We can look to the Qur’an for guidance in the presence of those who spread hate of religious and ethnic groups: “Hold fast to forgiveness and enjoin goodness and turn away from the ignorant” (7:199).

Sarah Duggan ’20,
Jenna Peng ’18,
Aqiil Gopee ’20,
Sabir Meah ’21,
Oumou Toure ’18,
Alizeh Sethi ’20,
Swati Narayan ’19,
Victoria Zhang ’18,
and Maya Hossain ’21

John (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/04/2017 - 21:59

I agree that most of Graham's arguments are wrong, weak, and incoherent. But when arguing against someone, we should not completely twist his claims to gain an advantage--that is ideologically disingenuous. Your evidence of his islamophobia while at Amherst is (1) he said there is a civil-war within islam "implying that Islam is limited to a war-torn geographical region." He clearly said that he meant the 'fundamentalist vs. peaceful civil war' (i assume you agree that there are peaceful muslims who oppose fundamentalism so you yourselves agree with the civil war comment). (2) he said that afghans are wired differently. Literally his next sentence was "Let me explain: they have been invaded so many times that they distrust strangers." A clearly historical--not racist or even defamatory--comment. Your argument is correct--you don't need to make things up.

D Galella (not verified) says:
Thu, 10/12/2017 - 14:48

I'm grateful to the MSA and SASA students for this thoughtful critique. Amherst College has a pattern of giving payments and platforms to Islamophobic campus speakers. In the past calendar year, the school supported Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, who has endorsed not only the Muslim ban but also a ban on all further immigration to the United States. When I asked on Amherst's Facebook wall why the College would give economic and symbolic capital to this Islamophobe, I was told that they would delete my comment because it insulted someone. It is clear to me that Amherst backs speech that dehumanizes already marginalized people and bans speech that points out structural inequality. In addition, the College recently brought to campus Bret Stephens of the New York Times, although he has made remarks such as "disease of the Arab mind." Amherst promotes inclusivity, and for them that means including students of color and students of Islam as well as people who rationalize their oppression. In so doing, the College says that they value systemic white supremacy along with its unequal freedoms over social justice. Amherst needs to end its hypocrisy of pretending to care about Muslim and South Asian student and instead actually, unequivocally listen to them.