MADISON, Wis. -- University of Wisconsin lecturer Kevin Barrett knows a little about life outside the mainstream--indeed, he once penned a travel guide under the pseudonym Dr. Weirde.
But he never expected to find himself carrying the banner for one of the most controversial theories of our times, a hypothesis that more than a few critics think goes beyond strange.
Barrett believes the U.S. government orchestrated the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to create support for a larger military budget and a long-term Middle East war. He believes the World Trade Center buildings fell after a controlled demolition and doubts that the hijacker believed to have flown the plane into the Pentagon had the skills to do it. He thinks Osama bin Laden is probably dead.
Those views, part of what he plans to discuss with University of Wisconsin students this fall in a class about Islam, have created an uproar at the university and, a few blocks away, among lawmakers in the state Capitol.
After Barrett discussed his views on a radio talk show, dozens of Republican lawmakers demanded that university administrators fire him, threatening to cut funding.
University Provost Patrick Farrell called the outcry politically motivated and has said that he will allow Barrett, a Muslim convert, to teach "Islam: Religion and Culture," an elective four-credit course.
On campus, students may not agree with Barrett's views, but those interviewed said they feel strongly that he should be allowed to teach the course. About 140 have registered for the class, which is near capacity.
The debate has raised questions about the limits of academic freedom and heightened long-standing tensions between conservative lawmakers and the liberal university.
Barrett, hired as a part-time lecturer only for the semester, seems a little amused by it all.
"I have always been trying to distinguish myself from all the weird people," he said, recalling past ventures as a writer. "Little did I imagine I would have become devoted to exposing what most people think of as a conspiracy theory."
Raised by Unitarian parents in Madison, Barrett, 47, earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin in 1981 and left for San Francisco after graduation.
He held disparate jobs: proofreading, doing publicity for clubs, singing in two punk bands. He also wrote for alternative weeklies, "features on weird people, sort of like what you're doing right now," he told a reporter. In the early 1990s, Barrett wrote the book "A Guide to Mysterious San Francisco: Dr. Weirde's Weirde Tours," in which he detailed the city's unusual sites and legends.
Barrett converted to Islam in 1993 after reading books on Islamic mysticism and meeting his future wife, a Muslim of Moroccan descent. He has two master's degrees from San Francisco State University and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Barrett has taught folklore, Arabic and other subjects at the university. He also has co-taught a course on Islam at Edgewood College in Madison.
The opportunity to teach the Islam course at the university became available when a longtime professor went on a sabbatical. Barrett was the only applicant for the job, and administrators felt he had the background for the course, having taken it as a student and worked as a teaching assistant for several semesters.
After Barrett's radio comments in June, university officials decided to review his teaching plans, looking over his syllabus, required readings and past student evaluations.
Farrell, the provost, said he was satisfied that Barrett could keep his activism out of the classroom and could fairly teach various views of the events of Sept. 11. Barrett said he will dedicate one week of the 16-week course to the subject, including both mainstream and alternative texts. He said discussion about Sept. 11 is relevant in a class about Islam because many Muslims outside the U.S. don't trust the government account.
He said he won't discuss his personal views, although he co-edited one of the assigned texts.
"The fact that he has unusual political beliefs or theories, I don't think I'm able to discriminate against an individual for that reason," Farrell said. "It isn't that we're unconcerned, but my expectation is that it will be a good experience for our students." Tyler Robbins, who took Barrett's folklore class, said that in discussing conspiracy theories, Barrett raised questions about Sept. 11.
"He interjected things related to the potential of it being a cover-up," said Robbins, 25, who never felt Barrett was trying to indoctrinate the class. "I don't think he wanted us to believe one way or another."
That doesn't matter to Wisconsin state Rep. Stephen Nass, a Republican who has led the fight to oust Barrett from his $8,000 job. Sixty-one lawmakers signed a resolution last month calling for administrators to fire the lecturer. The legislature has 131 members.
"The problem with this is that he cannot substantiate what he is trying to teach. It's garbage in, garbage out," Nass said. "They should get someone to teach about Islam, the religion, who can do a good job and not waste valuable student time."
Barrett says that those who believe "The 9-11 Commission Report" are the real conspiracy theorists.
He founded the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth to debunk common beliefs about the attacks.
Barrett acknowledged that he only has read sections of the 9/11 Commission report.
Mark Evenson, president of the union that represents faculty and staff at the university, said that although he is skeptical of Barrett's views, he defends his teaching of the class.
"Once you start saying it is OK to silence certain opinions, where does it all stop?" Evenson said. .
Barrett, meanwhile, seems to enjoy the media spotlight, riding to an interview in a beat-up maroon Toyota Camry, with a window that won't close and bumper stickers that read "911: Truth is the first casualty of war" and "9-11 = Neo Con Job."
"Within a few years, what I'm doing will be an asset, not a liability," he said.
For now, he said, "I get the feeling that the university would be happy if I were not the subject of media attention."
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Excerpts from an interview with University of Wisconsin lecturer Kevin Barrett:
On `The 9/11 Commission Report':
"The whole [report] is a ... lie. There is not a true word in it."
On the hijackers:
"There is a lot of dispute whether hijackers would be able to fly planes in the way they were flown. ... There is no evidence any hijackers boarded any planes."
On the government's motives:
"To increase the military budget, start pre-emptive wars in the Mideast, develop bases in the Middle East and Central Asia and roll back civil liberties so that can be accomplished. ... 9/11 is just a pretext to launching a prescriptive agenda."
On the government's complicity in killing thousands of Americans:
"If you think they would stop at killing a couple of months' [worth] of traffic fatalities in order to attain an immense strategic advantage to achieve the New American Century that they wanted, you are very naive."
On the questionable lack of air defense to stop the planes:
"Even from distant bases ... to get there late they had to be flying at a tiny fraction of their top speed. That was demonstrably ludicrous."
On Osama bin Laden:
"My educated guess is that he has been dead for some time."
On the authenticity of tapes of bin Laden:
"Anyone with eyes can see that is not him ... bin Laden hasn't been heard from since fall 2001."