Just over two weeks ago, Kennedy School Lecturer on Public Policy Jessica E. Stern gave what she thought was a relatively unassuming keynote address for an organization that, according to its Web site, seeks to "cooperate, prevent conflict, and manage regional and global challenges."
But after the June 14 conference for the EastWest Institute entitled "Towards a Common Response: New Thinking Against Violent Extremism and Radicalization," what came was a flurry of controversy and name calling—most of it directed squarely at Stern.
"They wanted me to be introducing a study conducted by the EastWest Institute," Stern said, explaining how her ordeal began. The study was called "Violent Extremism and Radicalization," and Stern said that her speech was intended to discuss "intra-faith dialogue."
But the day after the speech, the headline of a New York Sun article declared: "Double Standard Seen Among Terror Critics."
"I am not a public figure," Stern said in an interview earlier in the week. "It didn't occur to me that I needed to be on my toes for the way that a single sentence would be taken out of context."
In the New York Sun story, Stern was quoted as saying that while Muslim clerics are being called on to condemn Muslim extremist violence, "Catholic priests are not stepping up to condemn those who kill abortion doctors…[and] rabbis are not condemning the violent settlers' movement."
These comments, Stern said, were not part of her speech. "The reporter was extremely annoyed by the approach of the Institute," she said. "She wanted to be able to say something nasty about including Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the talk."
The series of events that followed included scores of angry e-mails accusing Stern of anti-Catholic, anti-Semitist, and anti-American remarks. But Stern said that two people in the audience actually accused her of anti-Muslim bias—a claim that she also rejects.
News of the controversy came as a surprise to many of Stern's colleagues, some of whom attest to her well respected reputation as an expert on terrorism.
"She brings an unusual combination of government experience with academic training to the subject," said Louise M. Richardson, Executive Dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study. Richardson co-taught Freshman Seminar 46m, "Understanding Terrorism," with Stern last year.
Richardson, who is also a member of the board at the EastWest Institute, said that Stern's academic qualifications as well as her "empirical" experience in the Middle East are some of the reasons why she was selected to address those attending the conference.
"She was an obvious choice to speak," Richardson said.
Stern received numerous hostile e-mails in response to her talk, including one that accused her of stupidity and ignorance while also suggesting that she should commit suicide.
"I've been working on terrorism for 20 years. You know, it's insulting," Stern said. "People assumed that I didn't see any difference between the lethality and importance of Muslim extremist violence and the violence produced by other groups."
Both Stern and Richardson said that talking about the violence in other religions is relevant to the terrorism debate.
"I believe that it is a myth that there is a peculiar relationship between Islam and violence," Richardson said.
Stern said that although the e-mails were unsettling, she did not feel the need to alert authorities as some of her friends suggested.
"I guess I need to think more like a politician," she said, "which means that I have to give very boring talks."