Amidst massive deplatforming of critics, dissenters, and opposing perspectives in the academia, on social media, and among other educational and cultural institutions, organizations aimed at promoting the study and discussions would appear to stand out as bulwarks of a free exchange of ideas. One would hope that those most focused on the study of communications would most embrace the media, and a flow of diverse ideas.
In reality, these supposed bulwarks of freedom, have been incrementally taken over by radicalized elements, who seek to stiffly not only the discussion, but any meaningful possibility of dissenting opinions or even coverage of how such institutions operate.
That is what I discovered after attending and being unceremoniously ejected from the National Communications Association’s 105th annual convention, “Communications for Survival”, which took place in Baltimore between November 13 and 17th. Having applied for the conference as a non-member presenter, and having registered and paid my fees, I spent the first few days enjoying the workshops, panel discussions, and presentations. My own presentation of the paper focused on the role of Islamists in undermining the US-Saudi relations by launching a character assassination campaign against the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and how to repair damage from these events. The presentation did not lead to any controversy; other panels, too, were receptive to questions.
Most presenters, even with hard left views, were civil and professional in responding to questions; in some cases, discussion led them to consider nuance to their presentations. One panel laudably was dedicated to discussing promoting ideological diversity in academia, whether it was an issue critical enough to address and the best ways to do it. One particularly thought provoking comment reframed the discussion from focusing on “ideological diversity” to promoting “intellectual respect”. Overall, the atmosphere was collegial, although predictably leaned towards left-wing views. That, however, was only encouraging for anyone tired of sitting out on the sidelines and looking to make an impact by introducing new perspectives to the predictable millieu.
Unfortunately, however, the promising impression of the conference was undermined by the turn of events following one of the last, relatively obscure panels.
The speaker panel in question took place at 330 pm at the Baltimore Convention Center. It was titled “Deconstructing anti-Muslim rhetorics in the Contemporary Political Climate: Beyond Survival, Toward Thriving”. The speakers were:
Fatima Zahrae Chrifi Alaoui , San Francisco State University
Haneen Ghabra, Kuwait University
Hana Masri, University of Texas, Austin
Shereen F. Yousuf, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Shadee Abdi, San Francisco State UniversityNoor Ghazal Aswad, University of Memphis
The panel, just like the rest of the event, was public. I was accompanied to it by a Saudi American researcher Dr. Najat Al Saied, based in Abu Dhabi, and a university professor we met at the conference. No announcement concerning sharing of the materials, recording, or taking photos during the panel or any of the conference was made. The only exception was the Convention’s Anti-Harassment Policy guide, which prohibits taking “harassing photos”, without defining what that means. Presumably, however, participants should not be stalking others and manipulating photography in some damaging way. A recent controversy at the Northwestern journalism school raised the question of whether taking photos of speakers at public events could be considered harassment. No legal cause of action was cited, but the student paper voluntarily redefined its own policy to determine that taking pictures of controversial speakers at controversial events is harassing them, and engaged in an act of self-censorship. On the other hand, Neff v. Time, Inc. (1976), a case where a sports magazine used a photo of a private individual at a public venue without prior consent, is a long-standing precedent of denying relief in such instances.
Having attended a number of panels, I took photos at each one to refresh my own recollection of the speakers and the presentations themselves. This last panel was no exception. My companions did not take any pictures.
During the course of the panel, The entire group discussed Ilham Omar and Rashida Tlaib favorably and stated that they were being attacked in the media and by others for being Muslim. Islamophobia, alleged stereotypes of Muslims, criticism of FBI for surveilling radical mosques, and Orientalism were the main precepts of the discussion, which was all over the place and did not propose any concrete solution to changing or improving the images of Muslims in the media or in public discourse. Dr. Al Saied responded by critiquing generalizing 1.8 billion Muslims as one group and pointed out that many Muslims strongly opposed Ilham Omar and Rashida Tlaib “because of their bad character”. Some Muslims, she pointed out, even supported Donald Trump. Her comments and question were quickly shut down. I raised my hand to ask a different question, but the panelists, seemingly deliberately, avoided calling on me for the rest of the question and answer session. Following the end of the panel, my companions and I left and headed for the reception.
Sometime later, in one of the reception rooms, I suddenly found myself surrounded by Dr. Abdi, one of the panelists, who had described herself of being of Iranian descent, and a few other individuals, none of them from the panel. Dr. Abdi demanded that I should delete the photos of her I had taken during the panel, and when I asked why, stated that she did not owe me an explanation, that she did not want me to take photos of her, and that she did not have to say “please”, when asking me to delete the photos. When I rejected her request, she invaded my personal space in an aggressive manner, coming very close to my face, and gesturing in a menacing way, and raised her voice, yelling and repeating that I have to delete the photos and that she did not have to say please. The other individuals joined in with her and accused me of harassing Dr. Abdi and of threatening her with those pictures. Some of the individuals called me names, including “white supremacist” and “racist bitch”, among others.
I tried to leave, but was physically prevented from leaving by the group. I then came over to NCA’s Vice President Dr. Kent Ono, explained exactly what happened. He nodded, without commenting much. I interpreted his position as acceptance of my explanation, and left the room. However, Dr. Abdi’s posse followed me outside and surrounded me by the elevators. They brought out the executive director of the organization, Dr. Trevor Parry-Giles, who materialized suddenly, as well as Vice President Ono. Dr. Parry-Giles proceeded to interrogate me, and it was immediately obvious from his first comments and from his line of inquiry and choice of words that he was siding with the accusers against me.
The accusers, a predictably intersectionalist crowd, fabricated increasingly fantastic claims against me and the university professor. They accused me of harassing Dr. Abdi, of verbally threatening to use the photos against her, and of threatening other members of the group. They accused the university professor of likewise taking pictures and of inappropriately touching one of the individuals, when, in fact, he was actually trying to get away from the group which was pressuring him and Dr. Al Saied to intervene with me and get me to delete the photos. Dr. Ono accused me of lying and claimed that I allegedly had told him that I was the only one taking photos, when in fact, the companion professor did also. I said no such thing, but on top of that, he did not take any photos.
I had offered to show that I had taken photos at every panel without discrimination based on the ethnic or religious background of the speakers; however, the executive director initially accepted my explanation. After taking a photo of my name badge, he searched for me online, and, alluding to my professional background in opposing Islamists, accused me of lying about the purpose of my photos. One of the first items to come up when searching for me would be my presentation video and the paper concerning Islamist character assassination attacks on Mohammed bin Salman, particularly since I tagged the NCA in it. This perspective would be anathema to anyone defending Tlaib and Omar, who themselves had launched scathing and personal attacks against Saudi Arabia.
He then evicted me from the NCA, banning me from returning to the conference the next day and promising to refund my registration fee. He also threatened legal action in the event I passed these photos to any third parties or published them anywhere, in a clear attempt to bully me as a journalist. In fact, this incident was a clear instance of trying to intimidate and bully critics and dissenting points of view. I was continuously followed and harassed on my way out. I was also accosted with demands to delete or crop photos of Dr. Abdi at my hotel the following day.
It became obvious to me that this situation was a set up, and if I had agreed to delete the photos that would have been used against me as admission of guilt. Even more obvious was the fact that what began as “guilt by association” over my perceived alliance with the Saudi who asked the question that rejected their position quickly turned into an aggressive campaign in response to my own research and presentation at the conference, as I exposed Islamist methods in character assassinating the Saudi Crown Prince and offered ideas for a response – exactly what is now being done to me, from the same playbook.
Dr. Al Saied had written an email to the Vice President Ono, but received no response. Instead, Dr. Parry-Giles ejected the university professor from the conference, preventing him from giving his lecture and suspending his membership in the organization, and wrote a one-sided complaint against him to his university chair on the basis of fabricated accusations by Dr. Abdi’s companions. A few days later, NCA circulated an email which did not name us, but involved major fabrications concerning what happened and notified the membership that a full report, likely with our photos and names would be released in February. Later, a public open letter to the executive committee fabricated further details and called for extensive action against the alleged violators. At no point was there any call for a fair hearing, nor the testimony of the accused was taken into consideration.
The most disappointing part of this experience was seeing that the leadership of such a renown, influential, and serious organization as the NCA siding with intersectionalist radicals and Islamist sympathizers and apologists in their efforts to bully journalists and critics (real or perceived), with complete disregard to truth, justice, and due process. This eviction and harassment is a stain on NCA’s professional reputation; it will have a chilling effect to its seeming commitment to fostering ideological diversity, and certainly, calls into question any idea of intellectual respect. These events further unveil the alliance of ideological progressives, leftists, and intersectionalists with followers of political Islam via the victim card argument. Aggressive willingness to sacrifice truth in exchange for power and absolute control brings together these seemingly divergent ideologies in a joint effort to shut down any criticism or discussion from dissenting groups and perspectives. These dangerous alliances threaten to stifle remnants of free speech and discussion in the academic setting in the US.
At the same time, this is an important opportunity for the opponents of political Islam and intersectionality and defenders of free discourse and vigorous interfaith discussions to come together in decisive action. Unless Middle Eastern and American allies and friends combine their resources and forces to oppose this creeping tyranny, the Orwellian totalitarianism will take over all of the Western world by creep.