A recent speech delivered by a UC Berkeley lecturer during an impromptu anti-war protest in San Francisco has set off a firestorm of criticism around the country, including death threats and calls for his removal from the university.
The speech, given by Hatem Bazian of UC's Near Eastern Studies Department, at one point noted the intifada in Palestine and uprising in Iraq and then asked the crowd why the U.S. has not had its own political intifada to protest the lies U.S. government has used to lead this country to war.
Critics took offense with his use of the word "intifada" and are claiming Bazian could be calling for an armed uprising like the ones in Iraq and Palestine. In Arabic, Intifada comes from a root word which means "shaking off," but the word has come to be associated with the armed Palestinian struggle against Israel.
But Bazian, who claims he has always advocated for non-violence, said the statement is being taken out of context. He also said the campaign appears to be a smear tactic to shut him down because he has been an outspoken opponent of the Israeli and American occupations in the Middle East.
"I was calling for political change considering the lies and half truths that have been thrown at us to take the nation to war," said Bazian. And in turn, he said, critics spun that to mean he was calling for "global jihad," charging that his comment was "sedition" and "treachery."
Although no official group has come out and criticized the comment, Bazian returned to his office the Monday after the April 10 speech to find he had thousands of critical e-mails waiting for him, many of them openly threatening. Several of the e-mails were sent directly to UC Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, calling on the chancellor to force Bazian to resign. In one day alone, Bazian received 18,000 e-mails—in another 12,000—in another 7,000. In total Bazian estimates he has received 100,000 e-mails.
"Hey, you ready to start the an intifada in the U.S.?' one e-mail reads. "Bring it on bitch, because I am certain I know who the first casualty will be. My brothers in arms in the USMC are kicking the shit out of the ‘insurgents' in fallujah. It would be wise of you to think of that before starting anything over here. By the way, better look both ways twice next time you cross the street."
Another e-mailer writes: "hatem baziam, you are no better than a terrorist! How dare you advocate war against America. You are trash. You are slime. You have violated our Constitution and free speech. You should be immediately deported to swim on the blood of pigs. A proud American Citizen who supports Israel and our troops. The lower case of the first letters of your name is to shows my utter contempt and disgust for you."
Over the course of the week, Baziam said people also left nine death threats on his office voice mail. One said the caller was going to get thousands of rounds of magnums to go after Bazian, another told him to be on the lookout because "we" were watching, and another told him directly that he should be shot in the head.
According to the university public relations department, Chancellor Berdahl has dismissed the calls for Bazians resignation, citing Bazian's both right to free speech and the fact that he made the comments as an individual, not while representing the university.
Still, Bazian said the campaign against him is a dangerous "smear tactic" used to silence anyone who challenges the campaigns in Iraq, or in his case, Israel as well. He said he has been criticized for speaking out against Israel in the past.
"It's been going on for a long time, anyone who speaks on the Palestinian issue and doesn't tow the line will have to suffer a systematic smear tactic," he said. "This is from Edward Said, to Chomsky…to Jesse Jackson to Pat Buchanan."
Bazian defends his latest statements on the one hand because they are based on fact. He said since the war broke out, his predictions have come true, in that the war was not based on the same facts the government lead the people to believe. As a result, he said he has the right to call for a challenge to the leadership who lied.
"When I said we need a political intifada in this country, it was a point of reference for the audience. If you look at the lies cast out to the American public, it's incredible that we still have the current leadership still lying out of its teeth about how we got to war," he said.
Nonetheless, the criticism against his remarks is still flying. He said after the news was initially published on the web, almost every right wing talk show in the country wanted him on their show. He denied most, but eventually agreed to appear on the well-known conservative news show, the "O'Reilly Factor," hosted by Bill O'Reilly on Fox news.
Bazian said he went on the show so he could get something on the record about the statement. According to Bazian, O'Reilly, who is known as an aggressive and outspoken conservative, received criticism from other right-wing groups for "going too soft," even though Bazian said O'Reilly grilled him throughout the interview.
Bazian said he always has to defend his public statements, but also said he feels he has to make them to because he is part of an "intellectual arena at a time when conformity is being asked for and alternative viewpoints are not being heard. The complete closing of airwaves by the mainstream media puts us in a position where we have to continue what we are doing, it must resonate. It does hurt, but nevertheless, it has to be said, even if it hurts."
While critical of those who are trying to get him fired, Bazian said he welcomes debate in general, calling it the "true essence of free speech."
"Let them share their point of view, and we will bring our people," he said. "If we only heard from the white power structure, and dismissed what the African American were saying, we would have never had the Civil Rights Movement."
Students who have had class with Bazian have also rallied to his defense, calling him an "asset to the students." They said Bazian has always presented both sides of the issue in his classes, letting students draw their own conclusions. They also said he has always been open to discussion and has been an active participant in the university community.