I almost didn’t write about this, since I was rather tired of writing about the ALA conference, but I’ve never heard of an ALA panel discussion being canceled because of protests, so here goes.
There was supposed to be a round table program at ALA called Perspectives on Islam: Beyond the Stereotyping. However, because the other speakers disagreed with the inclusion of Robert Spencer – a rather severe critic of Islam – they refused to participate and he session was canceled. I missed this when I was at the conference, because I really couldn’t care less about Islam in any professional way. In the library, if someone came up to me and proclaimed they were a Muslim, I’d say, "Great. So?" I just plain don’t care what religion you are as long as you don’t stick it in my face, and in a professional context I don’t have to be understanding or sensitive. If professionals just stick to the business at hand, they don’t need to worry about exposing themselves as the bigots they probably aren’t in the first place.
Anyway, back to the protest. As far as I can tell, it began with an "Open Letter" to the ALA and the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable (EMIERT) protesting the inclusion of Spencer, since he obviously has nothing nice to say about Islam, and the protesting librarians et al. apparently believe that round table discussions should follow the rule the if you’ve nothing nice to say you should just be quiet. Because of course Islam, and every other subject dear to the hearts of regressive librarians, is perfect and beyond criticism. Oh, and criticism is just mean, and requires thought and stuff like that.
"Even the most cursory overview of Mr. Spencer’s oeuvre makes it clear that in fact he has no place on a panel whose aim is to dispel stereotypes about Islam." That’s their claim, but of course they don’t prove it. "Hence a question arises as to the justification for inviting a speaker who cannot see anything positive about Islamic beliefs, cultures, societies, histories, etc. to talk to an audience in order to dispel negative views of Islam." The question arises only for the purblind protesters. The panel was about dispelling stereotypes, not "negative views of Islam." One question isn’t whether Spencer is rabidly anti-Islam, but whether he’s wrong. Another question is whether he deals in stereotypes, or does he deal with facts (which he might interpret in a biased way, but that’s makes him no different from his opponents).
It’s not a stereotype, for example, to say that many Muslim societies oppress women. They do. If you don’t believe me, go be a feminist in parts of Pakistan or Afghanistan and see how well you fare. I don’t think it’s a stereotype to say that even in this country, Muslim men tend not to have the sort of enlightened views about women that should be more pervasive in a free and equal society. At this point you might contend that neither do a lot of men of every religion. You would be correct, though illogical since that has nothing to do with the discussion. Your red herring does nothing to disprove my assertion. Either way, even if it were true of a given male, the only thing it would mean for me personally is that I wouldn’t date him. Professionally, it would mean nothing at all.
One problem with any discussions of Islam post 9/11 is the various sides don’t talk to each other, but merely at each other, all equally assured of the rightness of their claims. Another problem is that principles erode in the attempt to not offend some group. We saw this a few years ago with the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. I remember when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salmon Rushdie. Writers and intellectuals of the left stood proudly to defend Rushdie’s right to write whatever he wanted without having some fascist blowhard try to kill him over it. And how many on the left defended "Piss Christ"? Plenty. How pathetic the left seemed in comparison twenty years later. How slimy and hypocritical were their attempts to say that while they of course they believed in a free press and the right to free speech, one shouldn’t do something so blatantly offensive to any religious group as publish some cartoons. Oh, no, the horror! Cartoons! I really don’t see how they lived with themselves. Such intellectual dishonesty must cause massive cognitive dissonance, and it would cause shame were shame an emotion any longer familiar to Americans.
The Open Letter maintains the same intellectual dishonesty. "While we are not advocating censorship or the removal of Mr. Spencer from the panel and we affirm the values espoused in the ALA Library Bill of Rights, we ourselves advocate the choice of panelists who would be able to highlight in a rational and scholarly manner the richness, complexity, and multifaceted elements of Islamic cultures, societies and beliefs if we are to engage in meaningful discussions of Islam that can truly go beyond negative stereotypes." That’s right. While we of course believe in free speech and the free contest of ideas in general, we don’t believe in them on this issue. What the protesters wanted were people who wouldn’t criticize Islam in any way. There are negative stereotypes and negative truths about every religion, but somehow Islam gets a free ride.
CAIR published a highly biased summary of the events, which was sent to the ALA Council listserv by our old friend Cranky Marxist Dude, editor, as he styled himself, of Progressive Librarian. It’s the so-called progressives who give Islam a free ride from criticism, and I just don’t understand it. You would never find any progressives in America lambasting anyone for being too critical of Southern Baptists or fundamentalist Christians. If for some bizarre reason there was a panel discussion at ALA about Christians, it would be about how evil they are for trying to "censor" library books all over the country. If there were parts of the country with as high a concentration of Muslims as there are Southern Baptists, do you think they wouldn’t be challenging library books?
Usually the "progressive" critique is extended to Christians and even religious people in general. Probably no one would have protested Richard Dawkins speaking, but he’d say Muslims along with Christians and all other theists are more or less deluded morons whose religion is always bad for society and progressive ideas. Is it a "negative stereotype" that all true believers who accept the teachings of their religion on faith and are hostile to rational criticism are unreasonable people? What about if they also oppose free speech and the free exchange of ideas, because those exchanges tend to involve criticism and uncomfortable thoughts?
As with the Danish cartoons, I doubt the ALA or the ALA Council will have much to say about this. Like so many on the left these days, their support for free speech ends wherever Islam begins. Why should any of this matter, anyway? Why would there even be a discussion like this at ALA? In a free society, Muslims as Muslims are thrown into the mix with everyone else. As librarians, why should we care what religion people practice? No doubt the protesters would say that we have to be "sensitive" to Muslims, but we don’t have to be any more sensitive to Muslims than we would be to Christians or Jews or Buddhists or atheists. As librarians, we engage with the public as citizens in a democracy, not as adherents to a religion or creed. What, are libraries not supposed to buy books because they might offend Muslims? That’s ridiculous, though I bet the ALA OIF wouldn’t come out with a statement on that one! If someone comes up to the reference desk, should the librarian first inquire about the patron’s religion, or should the librarian answer the questions and try to help the person find information?
The protesters are just another group fighting against free expression and the exchange of critical ideas, and they should be treated as such. If there was a problem with that ALA panel, it wasn’t inviting Spencer. It was inviting a bunch of other people who weren’t willing to engage with Spencer and show him where he’s wrong, if indeed he is wrong. That would have been a much greater debate than the lame "great debates" over Library 2.0 and other typical ALA discussions. It wouldn’t have been very relevant for librarians, but it sure would have been lively.