In classic Islamic fashion, I was dis-invited by the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas Law School one and half working days before the 8-day holiday of Passover began--a time when both I and many colleagues, including those who would be celebrating Easter the following weekend, would be away from our desks and unable to "break" any news.
However, several most worthy colleagues stepped right up to the task. I am indebted to Yisrael Medad, at his site, My Right Word), and to all those who linked to his website; to Richard Landes who "fisked" the email chain that led to my dis-invitation, at his site The Augean Stables and to all those, beginning with Rochel Sylvestsky at Israel National News, who introduced and posted, or linked to, and tweeted out Landes' work. Finally, I am grateful to Winfield Myers of Middle East Forum (who worked long and hard on a piece that has yet to appear) and to Bruce Bawer whose piece will appear sometime this week.
Despite this extraordinary and diligent collegiality, the specific significance of my dis-invitation still hovers far below the radar.
We know that many worthy souls are also, almost routinely, dis-invited. I have been covering this precise phenomenon for the last fifteen years. In the last week and months, many recent news stories and op-ed pieces have covered the threatened--and actual violence towards both Milo Yiannopolous and Ann Coulter; Charles Murray and Heather McDonald.
Over the years, I have covered the hostile working conditions as well as dis-invitations that truth-tellers about Islam and about Israel have faced on campus: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nonie Darwish, Brigitte Gabriel, David Horowitz, and Robert Spencer, etc.
In what way is my dis-invitation different?
I was not delivering a stand-alone lecture but was a key part of a conference on a subject that I've been studying for many years.
And, unlike some of the other dis-invited speakers, I have a half-century track record as a "public intellectual," lecturer, an academic. I was a Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies from the late 1960s on until the end of the 20th century. My books sold millions of copies and were translated into many European languages and into Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese, and Korean. I had an international reputation as a human rights and women's right activist and leader long before the 21st century.
But all that no longer seems to matter. History no longer exists or professors no longer know or care about it; objectivity, true facts, clear reasoning, genuine intellectual diversity, the capacity for self-criticism, have all been banished from the Western Academy. Expertise consists of being a celebrity, preferably one who is either half-naked or wearing hijab; our new rulers are uncivil, provocative, vulgar, in short, they are celebrities who behave like attack dogs on a short leash. (This describes people on many sides of the aisle.)
My Original Sin: As of September, 2000, when Arafat launched yet another Intifada, I seemed to change course as I turned my attention to rising anti-Semitism, Big Lies about Israel, the denial that global terrorism was being perpetrated by Muslims—first against each other, then against infidels.
As a feminist, I also focused on gender apartheid and honor-based violence, including honor killings. I was no longer a politically correct i.e. a left-wing feminist, because I was defending Western civilization whose values and virtues made a 19th century abolitionist, and a 20th century civil rights, as well as a women's liberation movement possible.
Why had Law Professor Lisa Avalos invited me to speak?
I was supposed to speak about honor killings and would have been the only scholar whom has actually published academic, peer-reviewed and feminist studies (four, so far) about the very subject of the conference. The other participants were two most honorable activists (Diana Nammi and Rashid Begum of the UK); a brilliant filmmaker (Ruth Beni, also from the UK); law enforcement officer Chris Boughey, who worked on the Noor Almaleki case in Arizona and Shahin Mehdizadeh who translated from the Farsi and assisted in the Canadian Shafia case. Shahin's translation cracked the case wide open and led to the successful prosecution of three honor killers who had killed three teenagers and a first wife. The law professor who had invited me, Lisa Avalos, has done very important work on sexual violence against women and has been circling the phenomenon of honor-based violence. Avalos has relied on my work in this area as have many others.
It is clear that the Professors who protested my appearance had never read my academic studies. Had they done so, they would have found my conclusions far from "Islamophobic." First, my concern is with the victims, most of whom are tribal girls and women of color: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. The victims are Muslims. Second, while Hindus do perpetrate honor killings they do so only in India; Hindus do not bring the custom with them when they immigrate to the West. Only Muslims, and to a much lesser extent, Sikhs, do. Therefore, I concluded that this crime is tribal in origin. I held Islamic, Hindu, and Sikh leaders and communities responsible for not working to actively abolish a tribal custom which may not necessarily be rooted in their religious texts, even if ignorant people believe that it is.
Contrary to myth, I do not view women as only victims and men only as perpetrators. My fourth and latest study concerns the role that women play in honor killing, as collaborators, instigators, and hands-on perpetrators.
Professor Avalos wanted me to walk conference participants through my data, simplify it, arm them with it in a way that they could use. I had just about completed this lecture when she called to dis-invite me.
I was only slightly shocked. There had been absolutely no sign of a gathering storm.
In 2003, I may have been one of the earliest American professors who faced a near-riot for daring to answer hostile questions about Israel and Palestine in a truthful way. (That was not the subject of my speech but clearly some agent provocateurs had set out to unmask me as a Zionist.) This happened at a free-standing grassroots conference at Barnard. One minute I was a beloved Jewish and feminist professor; the next moment, I was being jeered, jostled, and accused of racism and "Islamophobia" because, when asked about "Israeli apartheid" I dared to deny its existence and pointed out that the largest practitioner of both religious and gender apartheid happens to be Islam.
As individuals and groups began yelling at me, I calmly talked about how nearly a million Jews had been forced out of Muslim countries; that infidels, especially Christians, faced serious persecution in Muslim countries; and that gender apartheid is characterized by forced face veiling, purdah (sequestration of women); child marriage, polygamy, female genital mutilation, normative, often daily daughter and wife beating--and human sacrifice: Honor Killing.
I had to be hustled out for my safety. My faith in the future of the Western campus was shaken, early on.
From that moment on, I understood that scholars, as well as pundits, would probably need security when they spoke on American and Canadian campuses. Since then, I've often had security but I've also delivered far fewer speeches.
The issue of non-invitations may be far bigger than the headline-grabbing dis-invitations.
Thus, the email that led to my dis-invitation was rather pro forma. My high crime consists of having written for right-wing publications. Having done so is today's equivalent to McCarthy accusing someone of being a Communist. Back then, by definition, that meant being a traitor to America and a spy for Soviet Russia. Similarly, today, if one is seen as politically incorrect or as a conservative, that means that one is a "bigot" and an "Islamophobe."
My accusers were: Professors Joel Gordon, Mohja Kahf, and Ted Swedenberg; and an administrator, possibly the Dean. A wee bit of research reveals that their major problem with me may have had less to do with my critique of honor-based violence and more to do with my pro-Israel positions.
Anthropologist Ted Swedenberg's Ph.D dissertation was a study which drew on the "popular memories of the 1936-1939 revolt in Palestine" for which he "interviewed elderly peasants living in villages in the Galilee and on the West Bank." I somehow doubt that he interviewed my people, the original Palestinians of that era.
Joel Gordon, a political and cultural historian of Egypt and the Middle East, wrote a glowing review of Palestinian-American Rashid Khalidi's The Iron Cage. The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood in Logos; Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia.
But that's not all. Gordon also supervised numerous dissertations and sat on dissertation committees where Palestine was the subject. Oddly enough, he sat on Mohja Kahf's dissertation committee—Kahf is the third professor who objected to my lecture and denounced me as an "Islamophobe."
Born in Damascus, Kahf's degree is in Comparative Literature and she is an author and a poet. Under other circumstances, I would have expected to enjoy her company. However, she is also a postcolonial sort of scholar; one of her articles is titled "From Her Royal Body the Robe Was Removed. The Trauma of Forced Unveiling in the Middle East." Ah—methinks she's been influenced by Lila Abu-Lughod, who also defends the Islamic Veil from the prying, Orientalizing, Western colonial gaze--but wait, Kahf's dissertation was supervised at Rutgers which suggests that she might also have been influenced by Golbarg Bashi, who teaches there.
Iranian-Swedish Bashi is married to Iranian-American Hamid Dabashi, who founded the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia, where both Abu-Lughod and Rashid Khalidi teach.
Oddly enough, Mohja Kahf participated in an at least one conference together with Golbarg Bashi. These professors are all anti-Zionists and they hate Jews—at least those Jews who are not strongly and passionately pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli.
Golbarg Bashi first came to my attention in 2013, when CSPAN called me and said they wanted me to appear for one whole hour in an interview to be conducted by Bashi. I told them to give me five minutes, found out who she was, and understood that she had probably been chosen, not to discuss the issues raised by my (then) new book, An American Bride in Kabul, but to expose me as a Zionist. Just as the Barnard-based provocateur-questioner did in 2003.
Being a Zionist is, these days, apparently even worse than being an "Islamophobe."
The three professors threatened violence—indeed, it had already begun. Two windows were broken. According to the acting head of the King Fahd Center, no police report had been filed—but the insurance company was going to pay for the damage anyway. In an email, Professors Gordon, Kahf, and Swedenberg warned that Muslim student associations would protest or riot. At the very least, these professors wanted a speaker present who would disagree with anything and everything I might have to say--and what's more, they also wanted a special curriculum about Racism and Islamophobia, created in connection with that well-known scholarly enterprise, Black Lives Matter, to be distributed during my talk--or perhaps, during my opponent's talk.
According to Professor Avalos, the current Director of the King Fahd Center, geologist Tom Paradise was told by an administrator that funding to the Center would be cut and/or the entire conference cancelled if I were not dis-invited.
The task fell to Professor Avalos who was outraged, embarrassed, and in some anguish. She described "intense pressure;" Professor Paradise may have become terrified. His emails sound terrified. Avalos thought this dis-invitation was a "disgrace," that my "work was well reasoned and carefully measured," that I did not "deserve this." Avalos also thought that this was "Arkansas-specific." I spent time comforting her and explaining that this problem was far bigger than Arkansas.
The conference took place without any trouble. No one contacted me. No one sent a letter of regret or support. No one issued a statement of solidarity.
I then wrote to each participant and am pleased to report that I am now in contact with at least three of the conference participants. This, in part took Mandy Sanghera's facilitation. Mandy is a colleague and a dear friend. She is also a co-founder of Shahram, a refuge network for girls and women escaping from honor-based violence in the UK. I also heard back from Shahin Mehdizadeh and, very briefly, from Professor Avalos. The director of the King Fahd Center, Tom Paradise, called me to offer his personal apology for the dis-invitation and to make sure that I understood that he had been given no choice. I have not yet connected with the two law enforcement officers, one of whom I have worked with in the past.
Mandy Sanghera said the one thing that mattered to me--and she posted it all over the internet. She said that "If they've disrespected Phyllis, they've disrespected us all. We cannot be pushed around by a bunch of Arab Saudi men." And then she called me up and proposed a feminist-run global conference on the subject.
"I'm in," I said.
I was initially planning to attend this conference in person but given the irregular flight times and the proximity to Passover, like Ruth Beni, I elected to appear via Skype. Apparently, my ideas are so dangerous that even my image and my words in cyberspace cannot be tolerated.
As military people have taught me: When you take flak you know you're over your target. And so I am.