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Sheema Khan

When talk isn't cheap Add to ...

Imagine: Our nation's top university decides to fete a former faculty member, in spite of his history of anti-aboriginal outbursts. He has called native society "hidebound and backward," claiming that "we have a higher standard of civilization than [aboriginal people]do," and that they aren't really a "nation." His latest salvo: Native people aren't worthy of Charter rights; for them, "life is cheap." There would be national outrage. Not so in a previous era, when anti-aboriginal sentiment pervaded the national psyche. Institutional racism is but a barometer of societal attitudes.

Islamophobia is now as American as apple pie, as Harvard University gets set to honour Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, as part of the 50th anniversary of Harvard's social studies major. Mr. Peretz's invective against Arabs and Muslims is legendary. Replace "aboriginal" with "Muslim/Arab" in the above quotes, and you have a sliver of Mr. Peretz's views. In the wake of the Manhattan Islamic cultural centre controversy, he blogged: "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. ... I wonder whether I need honour these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof described his words as "venomous and debased," while The Atlantic's James Fallows called them "an incredible instance of public bigotry in the American intelligentsia."

After a torrent of criticism, Mr. Peretz issued a quasi-apology: Embarrassed about the First Amendment comment, he insisted that "Muslim life is cheap" as a statement of fact. An atonement followed for "wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters."

At Harvard, protest is growing among students and faculty against the Peretz honour-fest. The university administration has remained unmoved, issuing its own muddled statement: While Mr. Peretz's Web post was "distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so," he has the right of free speech.

No one argues that Mr. Peretz does not have the right to espouse as bigoted views as he pleases. Yet an institution such as Harvard has the choice of valorizing such a person. It has focused on his recent blog, yet ignored a history of offensive comments. It's also ironic that the forerunner of many social sciences, including sociology, is Ibn Khaldun, a 15th-century Muslim scholar, whose opus al-Muqadimmah is revered by academics.

All of this escapes Harvard's administration, as it swoons at the altar of alumni donations. Mr. Peretz's friends (including Al Gore) have raised $500,000 toward a fund named in his honour. However, Harvard will face its own inconvenient truth: Once institutional integrity is compromised, it is difficult to recover.

The real issue of free speech was brought into sharp focus last week when Molly Norris, a former cartoonist for a Seattle newspaper, went into hiding on the advice of the FBI following calls for her assassination by a radical American-born cleric in Yemen.

Last April, Ms. Norris satirically called for an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," in protest of Comedy Central's earlier censorship of a South Park episode, in which all references to the Prophet Mohammed were removed. The call went viral, beyond Ms. Norris's control, spawning anti-Muslim groups. Horrified, Ms. Norris apologized; her goal was to defend free speech, not denigrate Muslims.

Her biggest defender is Arsalan Bukhari, director of the Seattle chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who said it best: "It's essential that we stand by her side, as a community, Muslims along with everyone else. We should stand up to people who make these kinds of threats, and not look the other way."

One may disagree with honouring the free speech of Mr. Peretz, but we should all stand against the violation of Ms. Norris's right to free speech.

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