Temple University hosted a visit by Dutch Parliamentarian and Chairman of the Dutch Freedom Party Geert Wilders on Tuesday, Oct. 20. The controversial European politician was invited to speak by an organization called Temple University Purpose, which touts itself as an organization committed to encouraging free speech and debate without taking sides on the ideological spectrum.
Long opposed by cultural relativists for his assertion that Islam ought to be classified as a political ideology rather than a religion, the intent of Wilders’ speech was to discuss the importance of freedom of speech in a free society. Wilders rose to prominence several years ago following the brutal murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a radical Muslim extremist in the Netherlands and has since worked tirelessly to educate fellow Europeans about the need to enhance immigration restrictions on those coming from Islamic countries, combat Islamist efforts to squelch the freedom of expression and thought of non-Muslims, and oppose efforts in some European communities from imposing Sharia Law over civil law.
My purpose here is not to dissect the individual arguments presented by Wilders (those seeking to do so can visit his web site at http://www.geertwilders.nl/). Instead, the purpose is to highlight the efforts of Wilders’ opponents to silence him and why such efforts actually work to strengthen the effectiveness of his argument pertaining to free speech.
Several days prior to Wilders’ Philadelphia visit, numerous Temple University student organizations rallied to have his invitation to appear on campus rescinded. Temple refused to comply and the event proceeded as expected. Local press featured several stories in run-up to the speech in which some university student groups insisted that Wilders’ speech ought to be banned from campus because his critical statements regarding the Koran and Islam were in essence "hate speech."
The silliness of this logic suggesting the denial of one man’s freedom of speech and thought because it in some abstract way was offensive to a slim minority is simply mind-numbing. Accompanied by his large security entourage—thanks to his forthright opposition to Islamic fundamentalist-fueled violence worldwide—Wilders arrived on campus before a small gathering of protestors holding placards proclaiming him to be the world’s most prominent racist.
One of the protesting organizations, Temple Democratic Socialists, urged their members and others to refrain from rowdy behavior. Despite this, Mr. Wilders was heckled, jeered, and booed following his speech and the showing of his brief documentary highlighting religious-inspired violence in Europe and the Middle East entitled Fitna. Students then asked him questions and he responded openly—the way a forum is supposed to work.
20 minutes into the forum, one female student made a statement denying that Sharia Law allows for honor killings, female genital mutilation, and violence. She concluded that the numbers of Islam’s practitioners around the world are growing because it is a "beautiful" religion. Wilder’s rebuttal drew more catcalls. A tall young man in the front row took the microphone and started off with a rant in the nature of "I had to sit here and listen to you, now it’s your turn to listen to me!" A student event organizer rightly snatched the microphone from him, smartly recognizing that the event wasn’t a debate, but a forum in which questions would be posed and answered.
Cultural relativists in the crowd broke out chanting "Free Speech," as if to suggest that the clueless student who lost his microphone privileges was actually being denied some sort of constitutional or moral right to berate a visiting dignitary. The crowd response turned uglier and the organizers chose to cut the event short, closing the proceedings out an hour prior to its scheduled conclusion.
The result was Temple University being given a public black eye as a visiting foreign leader was verbally harassed by a bunch of disorderly students. The majority of the audience present to listen and participate was denied the opportunity to do so. The boisterous students who disrupted the evening’s events claimed victory in the press, proudly saying how the helped run Wilders the hatemonger out of town and off campus.
It seems as if these kids still have a lot to learn. However, based upon what is passed off as discourse in America today it is hardly surprising that the raucous students in question felt as if they had done something right. In fact, they helped prove Wilders correct: some on the fringe left are willing to side with the radical Islamists who feel as if the Koran cannot be criticized, producing a religious ideology which supersedes free speech and thoughtful analysis in favor of apologetics and intolerance of liberty.
Rather than trying to shutdown debate and live in a political echo chamber, these concerned students should have embraced the opportunity to hear a message they disagreed with and used the information presented to either reflect upon or better comprehend their presently held views.
Nobody expects one to change their views to accommodate a visiting speaker or dignitary. However, it is simply in good taste to respect the opinions of others and allow their views to be heard. The purpose of the university is to enhance the free market place of ideas by allowing competing thoughts and opinions to be discussed, debated, and analyzed openly. Shouting down visiting speakers because of theoretical or policy-oriented disagreements isn’t simply juvenile behavior; it also runs counter to the rules of civility that maintain a functional, courteous society.
The late Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor and author of The Closing of the American Mind, wrote that "given the increasing and menacing pressures for conformity growing up within the university, it seems reasonable to ask whether it will not be necessary for thinking men to return to the isolation of private life in order to think freely." Let’s hope that these young people—the future inheritors of our country and society—figure it out.
Nathan Shrader is a PhD student at Temple University and a political consultant living in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected] or via his web page at www.NathanShrader.com.