Vanderbilt Professor Under Attack for Criticizing Islam

For students, the problem’s not Islam but a conservative professor.

carolLast week, in response to the Paris massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Carol M. Swain, an openly conservative professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, wrote an op-ed for The Tennessean titled, “Charlie Hebdo attacks prove critics were right about Islam.” Naturally, any critique of Islam from our leftist-dominated campuses is going to be met with frothing outrage, and Professor Swain’s article was no exception.

“What would it take to make us admit we were wrong about Islam?” the professor began. “What horrendous attack would finally convince us that Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration?” Good questions, and ones that those of us whose eyes have long been opened to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism have been asking ever since September 11, 2001, if not before.

But the fact that such questions were being put forth by a major university professor, even a conservative one (with a very impressive résumé, no less), was notable. Swain pulled no punches:

More and more members of the PC crowd now acknowledge that Islam has absolutely nothing in common with Christianity, nor is it a worthy part of the brotherhood of man I long felt was characteristic of the Abrahamic religions. A younger, more naive version of myself once believed in a world where the people of the Book could and would get along because they all claimed Abraham as their father. No more!

Those were strong, clear sentiments about Islam that one doesn’t often – or ever – hear from American academics. She concluded with a statement that dared to challenge the West’s false idol of multiculturalism: “It becomes clearer every day that Islam is not just another religion to be accorded the respect given to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Baha'i and other world religions.” The attack on Charlie Hebdo, she wrote, “once again illustrates that Islam is a dangerous set of beliefs totally incompatible with Western beliefs concerning freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.”

Swain’s solutions included “remov[ing] the foxes from the henhouses,” “institut[ing] serious monitoring of Islamic organizations,” and expecting Muslim immigrants to assimilate culturally. “If we are to be safe,” she wrote, “then we must have ground rules that protect the people from those who disdain the freedoms that most of the world covets.”

Among those who took umbrage at this blunt op-ed and complained to the Vanderbilt Hustler, the school paper, were: an international student from Pakistan who felt mortified by the piece; an agnostic junior who condemned Swain as xenophobic, hateful, and intolerant; a sophomore who accused Swain of “logical leaps” and “casual bigotry”; a graduate who warned against “fear of the Other”; another who purported to “debunk” Swain’s claims about Islam; and a Muslim undergrad who declared the op-ed to be hate speech and wondered, “How could such an educated, informed woman, a professor at Vanderbilt in charge of educating our youth, publish such ignorance?”

That same student, Farishtay Yamin, happens to be the publicity chair for Vanderbilt’s branch of the Muslim Students Association. She organized a student protest of Swain, saying, with no apparent trace of irony, “What I’m really trying to show [Swain] is that she can’t continue to say these kinds of things on a campus that’s so liberal and diverse and tolerant.” So much for the campus being liberal and diverse and tolerant.

The Muslim Students Association, the Muslim Brotherhood’s oldest offshoot in America, issued a statement, offering Professor Swain “kindness and respect” and forgiveness, pointing out that “she has allowed the acts of people who have distorted Islam to shape her views on an entire community of 1.6 billion people who practice peacefully.” Vanderbilt’s MSA invited her and others to attend their Islamic Awareness Month event called “Terrorism: Who Is to Blame” on Feb. 8. “Please join us for the event so that misconceptions can be cleared,” they urged helpfully.

The Vanderbilt Hustler editorial team responded by defending Swain’s right to free speech but denouncing her “brand of conservatism” as “disgusting and disappointing.” She has “undoubtedly abused her position” by “perpetuating a myth that seeks to shut down debate and discourage the legitimacy of the place that Muslim individuals hold in American society... In fact, many feel that Swain’s actions have created an environment that feels unsafe to some of her students.”

It’s ironic that Islam has created unsafe environments all over the world for Jews, Christians, women, gays, cartoonists, and even Muslims themselves, but the Vanderbilt Hustler editors blame Professor Swain for creating an unsafe campus environment for pointing that out (the Dean of Students even felt it necessary to reassure Muslim students that they are still safe on campus). Ironic, too, that – in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo assault – the editors claim that it is Swain who is seeking to shut down debate about Islam.

Last Sunday Professor Swain released a statement acknowledging that her op-ed “could have been written with a milder tone.” But given a chance to clarify her position in an interview, Swain did not back down. She told the Vanderbilt Hustler that, “What we don’t want in the United States is a repeat of what has happened in Europe… It would be beneficial,” she said, “if more Muslims would stand up and condemn jihadic violence against Christians, Jews, homosexuals and others.”

Asked how she reconciles the First Amendment with her “obligation as a professor to maintain a safe and civil environment” for “students who might feel threatened by your speech,” Swain replied,

I feel no special obligation to engage in politically correct speech. I think it is unfortunate that hate speech has become whatever makes a non-Christian uncomfortable… Any student who is threatened by a discussion of ideas cannot fully benefit from a liberal arts education… If a student takes one of my courses, then he or she has entered a political correctness free zone tolerant of divergent views.

Bravo. Thanks to the mental straitjacket of political correctness, no one who took exception to Professor Swain’s op-ed seems capable of grasping – or willing to grasp – the distinction between the ideology of Islam and its adherents. Criticism of the former is not the same as bigotry toward the latter. We must not allow the conversation about the world’s undeniable Islam problem always to be derailed by kneejerk accusations of mythical Islamophobia and intolerance. Unfortunately, freeing university students from that mental straitjacket will require an army of Professor Swains.

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