A 2017 Brookings Institution study found that 19 percent of American students favor violence to silence controversial speakers. This conduct, it seems, has become the norm, and according to the same study more than half of the respondents believe that it is legitimate to shout down those with whom you disagree. Yet only 30 percent of U.S. students are willing to voice a different opinion, and if the liberal saying "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" once prevailed on campuses, today it is replaced by an aspiration to cancel others' ideas and views.
"American academia suffers from politicization, ideological bias, and extensive extremism," states Winfield Myers, director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that monitors and critiques Middle East studies in North American (U.S. and Canadian) universities.
"We focus on the departments of history, anthropology, social sciences, literature, Islamic studies, and more, and we take a long-term view," Myers says. "Academics often provide bad advice to policymakers in Washington, [as policymakers] in places like the State Department, or present their views to the public through books and position papers. If after government service they return to the academy as professors, they will instill in students ideas that harm national security."
This happened, for example, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., a prestigious educational institution that, in addition to its esteemed history, enjoys a physical proximity to important centers of influence and foreign embassies. In December 2005, Myers said, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal gave the university $20 million, a huge sum for any humanities or social science program. Following the donation, the Center for Muslim and Christian Understanding at the university was named after him and became the Alwaleed Center for Muslim Christian Understanding (ACMCU). Many assumed the money would contribute to a better understanding between religions and believers, but in practice the opposite occurred.
Georgetown has become a stronghold of Islamist Wahhabi propaganda right in the heart of the American capital. The founding director of ACMCU is John Esposito, who since the 1990s has argued that Islamism provides a path to democracy in the Middle East and who, therefore, supported movements toward radicalization. Esposito hired only academic staff who shared his worldview, and thus created a "more powerful megaphone" for an ideology that is among the most hostile toward the West. Yet the center is lent a veneer of legitimacy by the reputation of Georgetown, one of America's oldest institutions of higher education. ACMCU faculty and staff publish opinion columns in influential newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, are interviewed by prominent media outlets, and disseminate worldwide an anti-Western, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic worldview.
"Many in the general population oppose the radical ideas that originate on campus and see them as dangerous."
"Within the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center, there is a project called 'the Bridge Initiative,'" Myers adds. Esposito is the director, and its principal purpose is to condemn and sully the reputation of anyone who criticizes radical Islam or Islamist regimes, and to smear critics as "Islamophobic." "Instead of encouraging debate, as one would expect in academe, the project silences it, all with the money of a Saudi prince."
Victims of a "Cancel Culture"
According to Myers, Georgetown's experience illustrates what is happening to Middle East studies across the U.S. Seventy and even fifty years ago Middle East studies was a mostly apolitical field that focused on understanding the region through the study of philology, archaeology, and history. Now, he says, leftwing scholars who are sympathetic to Islamism have taken over and spread their ideas to students. This does not mean there are no apolitical professors and scholars left, but those who remain are increasingly marginalized and their voices are less and less heard.
"The permissible range of opinions on campuses has decreased significantly in recent decades."
"Overall, the permissible range of opinions on campuses has decreased significantly in recent decades, especially in the humanities and social sciences," Myers notes. "Radicalization also imposes intellectual homogeneity. The liberals of old, those who held left-of-center views but sincerely believed in objective research and academic freedom, were replaced or pushed out" over time. "A very different approach now dominates universities. There is far less tolerance, far less desire to present or teach differing opinions. Once a fertile ground for lively intellectual debate, campuses now restrict freedom of expression."
The forced consensus on campuses is expressed in what Myers calls a "cancel culture": speakers from universities or elsewhere find their lectures at universities canceled under pressure from groups that do not like their opinions. If the lecture still occurs, opponents often attempt to thwart it by shouting down the speaker. Victims of the "cancel culture" include Israeli or conservative speakers, but also liberal speakers, who dare to declare that in a democratic society, different opinions should be heard.
Israel, despite the distance, is in more ways than one not immune from the consequences of these trends. The winds that have been blowing through Georgetown or Berkeley are sweeping through parts of Israeli academia and could also affect the political system of our great friend [America]. "American academe is becoming very anti-Israel," Myers said. "Israel is often presented here as an illegitimate colonialist enterprise that expelled the indigenous population. Some of the professors in the United States even refuse to pronounce the name Israel, as if to imply its inherent illegitimacy. There are already 'historians' who claim that there were no ancient Hebrews at all, or that they were just another tribe like the Canaanites, all in order to undermine the connection of the Jews to the Land of Israel and to legitimize attacks on Israel. The method is not new: repeat the lie so many times that the hearers accept it."
How does a young student feel in such a campus atmosphere?
"Such a student is under tremendous and relentless pressure to adopt the dominant campus worldview. Students I speak to present a bleak picture. There is an increasing degree of interference in the student's life to make sure he does not have an 'incorrect' thought."
"Universities often impose draconian practices to control what students are allowed to say, what they are allowed to hear, and what they are allowed to read. The result harms society because it produces lower quality university graduates. Students who have not been able to defend their views in free discourse and think about life's problems in all their complexity, do not know what to do when they finally encounter other views. In such cases, they make life easy for themselves and simply dismiss any differing opinion on the grounds that it is dark, racist, or illegitimate. From here, it is only one small step to the imposition of censorship on different opinions, which are presented not only as wrong but as evil."
The move to support political Islam was born in academia, but was adopted by President Barack Obama in his "Cairo speech" and in the policies of his administration, wasn't it?
"That's true. In the Western world academe creates the educated elites of society and is a unique lever of influence. Ideas that sound very radical to the average American or average Israeli, and are shared only by small interest groups, can gain momentum in academe. Each student [taught such radical ideas] will in turn spread them and influence others."
"This process has intensified in the current environment, a dynamic and information-saturated environment, in which the public has become accustomed to relying on the ideas of those who influence our intellectual and cultural milieux."
Would it be correct to attribute the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election to the influence of academe?
"Barack Obama's election to the presidency, and especially his second term, witnessed the broad adoption of a radical view that is highly critical of Western civilization and the U.S. It's very tolerant of other civilizations, such as those of Islam or China, in a cultural sense, and exemplifies a Western trend that over the centuries to exaggerate every Western flaw, even the smallest, while approaching other civilizations with a kind of romantic admiration. Islamism has a special appeal because its followers share a strong anti-Western view espoused by the far left in academe. In the political sense, it is frequently said the Obama administration represented the opinions of the faculty lounge, including those that are most destructive and harmful."
What can change the picture?
"Indoctrination on U.S. campuses will in time fail, [but] before that happens it will do quite a bit more harm."
"In the long run, the pursuit of eternal truth, and the defeat of false ideas, because man's search for truth is eternal. Even our contemporaries, when introduced to Homer or the books of the prophets in the Bible, can identify with them even though we live in a world so different from the ancient cultures that produced these books. Totalitarian regimes around the world have failed in their quest to produce a 'new man,' and similarly, indoctrination on U.S. campuses will in time fail. Before that happens, it will do quite a bit more harm, both to individuals qua individuals and to our society as a whole.
"It is difficult to predict what will happen in the short term -- whether the left's ideological dictatorship will worsen in universities, or whether the left's control and coercion will produce a strong backlash. It should be remembered that a large percentage of the population opposes the radical ideas emanating from campuses."
"One thing is very clear: we need to fight for a diversity of opinions and ideas and for liberty, and criticize and explain without growing weary. This is a long-term battle."