NWA editorial: The 'disinvited'

King Fahd Center flare up does some damage

It is an unfortunate irony that the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas is in a bit of turmoil.

It's easy to suggest it might be an organizational hazard as a result of its academic focus. We suspect the same would sometimes be true if there were a President (insert name here) Center for United States Studies.

What’s the point?

A flare-up over a controversial speaker at a University of Arkansas symposium was mishandled, to the detriment of everyone involved except, perhaps, that speaker.

The recent resignation of King Fahd Center director Tom Paradise arose, it appears, from an earnest effort to explore the subject matter. Paradise, a geosciences professor who took formally took over as director over a second time in 2015, had organized an April 13-14 academic symposium about honor-based violence in Western countries.

Honor-based violence describes attacks committed as a result of a perceived need to restore a family's standing within the community, which is presumed to have been lost through the behavior of the victim, according to the Honor Based Violence Awareness Network.

Paradise had earlier dropped scholar Phyllis Chesler from the symposium schedule. Chesler, who was going to participate via an online video conferencing service, is an emerita professor of psychology with the City University of New York who has written about honor killings for publications ranging from the New York Post to Breitbart.

Her positions haven't been universally popular or accepted. She contends some scholars have ignored the role of Islam in attacks taking place in the United States.

Three UA professor, however, took it upon themselves to attempt to restore the honor of the King Fahd Center, writing that they could not "countenance official Center endorsement (without some protest noted) of the participation on campus in an academic forum of the kind of hate speech that has been included and therefore tacitly accepted as part of the discourse." Professors Mohja Kahf, Ted Swedenburg and Joel Gordon protested Chesler's participation and sought a disavowal of King Fahd Center support for her inclusion.

Paradise paid the price. The university suspended him for a decision inconsistent with the UA's culture.

"The decision to disinvite a participant for his or her views is not reflective of the values and practices of our institution," university spokesman Mark Rushing explained.

Paradise resigned last week as the center's director.

Let's not pretend the professors who complained have no basis for concern, but at institutions of higher learning, isn't there's a basic academic assumption that a free exchange of ideas will result in the better ones rising to the surface and the poorer ones being exposed for what they are?

There should be.

Is it preferable to have the robust discussion of ideas in a symposium or to damage an institution's reputation by earning national media attention because professors of a Middle East studies program want to shut down ideas with which they disagree?

It's the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies. It's not the Middle East.

The three professors undoubtedly believed they were taking a principled stand. Maybe they were.

They also gave Chesler a far bigger platform for her views than she would have found by Skyping into a symposium at the University of Arkansas.

Commentary on 06/24/2017

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