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Modern-day witch-hunt
The voices they want to silence

February 25, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

SINCE THE September 11 attacks, the right wing has organized a concerted campaign to silence the voices of left-wing academics and activists--particularly those known for standing up in defense of civil liberties and Arab and Muslim rights.

This assault has accelerated since George W. Bush's reelection victory in November. The latest victim is veteran civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart, who was convicted of aiding "terrorism" in a trial that ended earlier this month. Meanwhile, conservative groups and media pundits have escalated their attacks on left-wing academics like Ward Churchill, Joseph Massad and M. Shahid Alam.

NICOLE COLSON and JONAH BIRCH look at the voices the right is trying to silence--and how we can fight back.

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Lynne Stewart

THE CONVICTION of radical lawyer Lynne Stewart on charges of perjury and giving "material aid" to terrorists was designed to send a chilling message to anyone who would stand up for civil liberties.

The media have labeled Stewart a "terrorist supporter." Newly confirmed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that Stewart's conviction sends "a clear, unmistakable message that this department will pursue both those who carry out acts of terrorism and those who assist them with their murderous goals." This from the man who wrote a memo justifying the Bush administration's decision to ignore the Geneva Conventions--which set the stage for the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

Stewart's crime wasn't that she "aided terrorists" when she publicized a statement from her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to bomb several New York City landmarks. As the New York Times reported, "The government never showed that any violence ever resulted from...any action by Ms. Stewart or [Stewart's co-defendant]; there were no victims in the case."

Instead, Stewart is being persecuted for her vigorous defense of an unpopular client.

What's more, the government's evidence was collected by spying on Stewart and Abdel Rahman--videotaping their meetings and tapping her phone conversations--a violation of attorney-client privilege that was made legal under a mid-1990s anti-terrorism law.

"This prosecution doesn't have a damn thing to do with terrorism," Stewart's husband, Ralph Poynter, told a reporter during the trial. "It has to do with politics and putting Lynne Stewart away." As Stewart told Mumia Abu-Jamal in a 2002 interview, "The Justice Department decided that things that I did as a lawyer are now to be outlawed, are now to be made into crimes, in order to deter other lawyers from vigorously defending people.

That's why her courageous vow to fight her conviction is so important.

The National Lawyers Guild called for February 17 to be a "day of outrage" against the Stewart verdict. Events and actions took place in New York and other cities.

Letters in support of Lynne Stewart can be addressed to Honorable John G. Koeltl, United States District Judge, Southern District of New York--and sent directly to Stewart's lawyer, Jill Shellow-Lavine, 2537 Post Rd., Southport, CT 06890.

Ward Churchill

UNIVERSITY OF Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill may lose his job because of the uproar manufactured by conservatives like Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly.

In January, O'Reilly seized on an essay that Churchill had wrote following the September 11 attacks in which he mainly argued that "blowback" is an inevitable consequence of the U.S. military's attacks on civilians around the globe.

The essay undercut its main point by suggesting that some victims of the September 11 attacks were complicit with U.S. war crimes. Churchill later clarified his statement, putting the stress back on the U.S. government's record of atrocities in stoking anger and hatred against Americans.

But that didn't stop O'Reilly from going on the attack. The Fox News blowhard blasted not only the University of Colorado for employing Churchill, but upstate New York Hamilton College for inviting Churchill to speak on a panel discussion on "The Limits of Dissent."

Churchill was disinvited from speaking at Hamilton--and was forced to resign as head of the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado. Now, the right wing--including conservative Colorado Gov. Bill Owens--is demanding that Churchill be fired, and the University of Colorado is undertaking a "30-day review period" of Churchill's writings.

Make no mistake: the attack on Churchill isn't about the claims he made in his essay. He is being targeted because of his left-wing politics and his defense of academic freedom--something that right-wingers like O'Reilly are determined to squelch.

"[Y]ou go into the freedom of speech area...and that's where all these academics are hiding," O'Reilly snarled last month. "You know what this is all about? This is about political correctness once again. That's what this is about. This guy is a Native American. He feels that genocide was perpetuated on his race. And therefore, he can hate his country and say anything he wants."

M. Shahid Alam

O'REILLY HADN'T even finished his smear campaign against Ward Churchill before he moved on to Northeastern University economics professor M. Shahid Alam.

Like Churchill, Alam was targeted for an essay he wrote in December about the September 11 attacks. In it, Alam condemned the attacks as a sign of political failure. But the right wing went ballistic over Alam's statement that the attacks were carried out by people who believe they were fighting a foreign occupier--like Americans fighting in the Revolutionary War.

Back when the essay was published, Alam received a spate of death threats and hate mail. Now, O'Reilly is adding fuel to the fire.

Alam refused an on-camera interview with O'Reilly, knowing the host's tendency to shout down left-leaning guests. Fox ignored Alam's offer to respond to its charges in some other form.

Meanwhile, he was raked over the coals in absentia by O'Reilly and self-proclaimed "campus watchdog" and right-wing historian Daniel Pipes. O'Reilly referred to Alam as a "bomb thrower"--and asked Pipes if it wouldn't be fair to "say that this professor is rooting for the terrorists to win the war on terror?"

Pipes declared that Alam "is a combination of a Marxist and a radical Muslim, someone who sees the Western colonial enterprise as the source of all the problems of the non-Western world. He sees it being the problem in the 18th century, he sees it as the problem today. Whatever goes wrong with the world is our fault...He has great antagonism toward this country, though I might add, he's an immigrant to this country."

Now, students at Northeastern University--including the Arab Student Association and the International Socialist Organization are planning a petition drive and signature ad campaign to support Alam and defend academic freedom.

Columbia University's MEALAC Department

AT COLUMBIA University, campus Zionists aided by the mainstream media, right-wing politicians and national pro-Israel advocacy groups have continued their campaign against critics of U.S. imperialism and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. The assaults have focused on the Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) Department.

The current wave of attacks began with the release of Columbia Unbecoming, a film produced by the David Project, a Boston-based Zionist group, immediately after the November elections. Columbia Unbecoming features interviews with a handful of pro-Israel students at Columbia, who decry their alleged marginalization on campus, and who specifically charge MEALAC professors--in particular, Joseph Massad--with intimidating pro-Israel students.

The film provides no evidence for the harassment charge. Nevertheless, the claims were immediately picked up by right wingers.

The New York Daily News ran a front-page article blasting Columbia professors for "promoting an I-hate-Israel agenda, embracing the ugliest of Arab propaganda, and teaching that Zionism is the root of all evil in the Mideast." In the midst of this outcry, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner from Brooklyn demanded Massad's firing, and the New York City Council announced that if the Columbia administration failed to sanction MEALAC professors, it would launch its own investigation.

Rather than stand up to the slander campaign, Columbia President Lee Bollinger announced in December the formation of a faculty committee to investigate MEALAC.

Right-wingers immediately denounced the faculty committee because it included two professors who had signed a previous faculty petition demanding that the university divest from Israel. However, Bollinger has repeatedly gone out of his way to promise that the MEALAC professors will receive no support from his office.

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What the right really wants

JONAH BIRCH explains what's at stake in the fight at Columbia.

THE RIGHT wingers at Columbia University say they only want academic freedom. Indeed, pro-Israel activists trying to cleanse the MEALAC Department of support for Palestinian rights have named their organization "Columbians for Academic Freedom."

Yet their real goal is intensely political--to silence critics of the U.S. and Israel, and in doing so, strengthen the domestic front in George Bush's "war on terror."

"Right-wing 'academic freedom' campaigns have nothing to do with student rights or what goes on in the classroom," says Brenda Coughlin, a graduate student in sociology at Columbia. "They are about what goes on in occupied territories and on battlefields, whether in Palestine, Iraq, Vietnam or South Africa. U.S. regimes and their allies--including in this case the state of Israel--need cover for what they do, and they don't like their own people criticizing them.

"Governments know only too well that students have often been one of the key groups in struggles against racism, against imperialism. They want us to shut up, and groups like the David Project... are part of that effort to silence dissent, to dehumanize suffering (whether of Palestinians or Iraqis or Vietnamese), and to strip young people of the right to think for ourselves."

Despite their claims about wanting "robust" debate, college administrators have aided and abetted the right-wing attack. At Columbia, for example, university President Lee Bollinger has repeatedly promised that MEALAC professors will receive no support from his office. Two years ago, he revealed what he believes to be acceptable "discourse" about Israel when he publicly denounced a petition calling for university divestment as "grotesque and offensive."

Unfortunately, the right has clearly made gains at Columbia. This spring, Joseph Massad was forced to cancel his annual class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of right-wing pressure.

Many professors who are privately seething at the attacks have been afraid to publicly oppose the university's investigation of MEALAC. Hamid Dabashi, the chair of the MEALAC department, has limited his public comments in recent weeks to a letter to the campus newspaper, defensively explaining one of his articles that a right-winger had (ridiculously) labeled anti-Semitic.

There are signs of an opening to organize a movement that can counter the right and defend these left-wing professors--but we have to make an open stand. When the well-known lawyer and prominent Israel supporter Alan Dershowitz came to speak on campus, a number of students came out to challenge him for his attacks on MEALAC professors like Massad and Dabashi.

Recently, students and faculty organized a series of teach-ins about McCarthyism and the situation in the Middle East. At one, hundreds of mostly supportive students heard Massad argue forcefully for a one-state solution in Palestine.

The right will not simply drop its assaults on left-wingers on campus. Our ability to mobilize people against them is dependent on our ability to expose the real aims of the right-wing attacks--to show that the well-funded campaign against professors like those in the MEALAC department has nothing to do with "academic freedom," and everything to do with furthering the cause of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East.

Venom of the right

BILL O'REILLY is whipping up a scandal by picking over essays written by left-wing academics. But--as Mickey Z., among other writers, pointed out on the CounterPunch Web site--there seems to be a double standard when it comes to right-wingers. Where was the outrage at statements like these?

"God told me to strike at al-Qaeda, and I struck them. And then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did."
-- George W. Bush

"My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building."
-- Ann Coulter

"If I see someone come in, and he's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked."
-- Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.)

"I say bomb the hell out of them. If there's collateral damage, so be it."
-- Former Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.)

"There is only one way to begin to deal with people like this, and that is you have to kill some of them, even if they're not immediately involved in this thing."
-- Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger

"I'm for the president to chase them all over the world. If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord."
-- Televangelist Jerry Falwell

"The most unattractive women in the world are probably in the Muslim countries."
-- Bill O'Reilly

"[Afghanistan] is a very primitive country. And taking out their ability to exist day to day will not be hard. Remember, the people of any country are ultimately responsible for the government they have. We should not target civilians. But if they don't rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period."
-- Bill O'Reilly

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