Each year, the University of California hosts a lecture in honor of Mario Savio. On December 2, 1964, Mario Savio stood on the steps of Berkeley's Sproul Hall and launched into an unrehearsed speech, often considered one of the best 100 of the century. The speech would make him the voice of what became known as the Free Speech Movement.
Throughout Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement [FSM] represented a strong part of Berkeley's historic and cultural identity.
The FSM, however, seems to have evolved into its opposite, a censorship by others or of oneself, disguised as political correctness. It is an ideology that makes sensitivity to the feelings of the "previously excluded" trump basic rights.
The tension between what the FSM was and what it became has now come to a head in the most recent of Berkeley's conflicts over the role of free speech. The conflict arose from the invitation to television personality Bill Maher to give the address for this December's graduation.
Maher is no stranger to political controversy. Ironically, it is Maher's controversial positions that undoubtedly led to his invitation; the December 20th commencement will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of the FSM.
In early October, on his show, Real Time, Maher said that liberals support the rights of gays, lesbians, and women, but refuse to stand up for those rights when supporting them also means criticizing aspects of Islam.
In a heated exchange with the actor Ben Affleck, Maher said that the reason we do not hear from moderate Muslims is because they are afraid to speak up, and that Islam is the only religion that acts like the Mafia. (He did not qualify his remark.) Maher went on to say that radical Muslims are not just a group of outliers, and that according to a Pew Poll, about 90% of Muslims in Egypt believe that death is an appropriate punishment for apostasy.
Maher's "free speech" was apparently
Apparently, no one has come forward to refute Maher's citation of the Pew poll, or remind these students that apostates such as human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali need round-the-clock protection from radical Muslims.
If, for example, 90% of Brazilians believed that anyone leaving the Christian faith should be punished by death, surely this view would prompt legitimate criticism of the theology that implanted those ideas. After all, are we Americans not constantly asked to look inward at the consequences for others of our own beliefs and behavior?
This, ironically, is the theme of Berkeley senior lecturer Hatem Bazian's course on Islamophobia. The course focuses on how Americans indiscriminately cast Muslims as "the other."
Bazian is in the forefront of the movement to prevent Maher from speaking on campus. Bazian himself, however, seems to like being unrestrained when he wants to speak. At a 2004 anti-war rally in San Francisco, he called for an American Intifada (violent uprising). At that event, Bazian said, "...we're sitting here and watching the world pass by, people being bombed, and it's about time that we have an Intifada in this country that change[s] fundamentally the political dynamics in here." He went on to promise, "They're gonna say, 'some Palestinian being too radical' — well, you haven't seen radicalism yet!"
Bazian is the founder of the Students for Justice in Palestine, a group the Anti-Defamation League calls anti-Semitic. He lectures about undue Jewish influence at Berkeley by rattling off the names of buildings built by San Francisco's Jewish philanthropists. Yet, as investigative journalist Lee Kaplan notes, Bazian received a degree from a program heavily endowed with Saudi Arabian money. Apparently, to Bazian, Jewish money promotes undue influence, but Saudi money has no Wahhabi fundamentalist influence strings attached. Maybe, Bazian should ask whether there is something in Islam that causes so many of its adherents to cast non-Muslims as "the other."
The organized Muslim groups have not exactly embraced Freedom of Speech or Assembly as primary values. For more than a decade, Muslim student groups have used verbal and physical assaults to prevent pro-Israel demonstrations and to disrupt speakers throughout California's system of higher education.
On February 2011, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was shouted down at the University of California, Irvine [UCI]. A year later, UCI's Muslim Student Union invited the popular Imam Malik Ali, who blamed the Jews for the financial collapse, while praising the MSU for disrupting Oren's speech. To Jews in the audience, he said, you all are the new Nazis.
The venue of a lecture by the historian Daniel Pipes at Berkeley had to be changed at the last minute for security reasons. To enter the auditorium, audience members had to go through metal detectors and have their personal belongings searched. Despite the presence of police who surrounded the interior of the auditorium, a designated safe room had to be created to which Pipes could withdraw in the event of an attack.
A group of about fifty Muslim students sat together in the center of the auditorium and took turns disrupting the lecture. Police, repeatedly, had to eject hecklers, and when Muslim women had to be ejected, the group announced that it was prohibited for the police to eject them because men were not allowed to touch women. When the question and answer period began and Pipes's remarks could be openly challenged in the free marketplace of ideas, the Muslims marched out in unison.
Once outside, they set up a gauntlet through which everyone exiting the auditorium had to pass. For some inexplicable reason, the university police only permitted one door to be used for an exit, so that everyone had to walk through the Muslim gauntlet. The departing audience was verbally accosted and in some cases spat upon just because they attended Pipes's lecture and because they either were Jews or perceived to be Jewish sympathizers.
Yet Imam Malik Ali was able to utter the most offensive vitriol at the Jews in his audience in a public forum without any need for a safe room or the presence of police. That, of course, is precisely as it should be.
The distortion in our system is not from extending the First Amendment to a Malik Ali or a Hatem Bazian. The distortion is from failing to educate young people to extend the same courtesy to those with whom one -- in this instance, some Muslim organizations -- might disagree. No one forced them to listen. They were free not to attend the lecture.
Although the Berkeley students were pressured into withdrawing the invitation to Bill Maher, the university administration made an adult intervention. Maher is still invited.
Ironically, fifty years ago, there was a strange union of the political left and the Students for Goldwater, both seeking to dismantle the barricades that prevented the Constitution from entering the campus gate: the university's regulations then prohibited any type of political organizing to occur on campus. The First Amendment, as it pertained to any external political activity, did not extend beyond the campus gate; the FSM was created to tear down that restriction. To invite Bill Maher to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the FSM is altogether fitting. The students at Berkeley should be free to hear a dissident voice. That, after all, is why Mario Savio stood on the Sproul steps on December 2, 1964.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is the author of Fourteenth Street, A Chicago Story, a work of political fiction.