Imagine the following scenario. A storied American university holds a conference on the future of democracy in Europe. Among the invited speakers are representatives of two of the continent’s neo-Nazi parties, Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece.
Better yet, imagine that same university holding a conference on current trends in Israeli politics, featuring a speaker who is an open admirer of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish extremist who murdered 29 worshippers and wounded more than 100 when he opened fire in a Palestinian mosque in Hebron in 1994.
You might think that the ensuing public outcry would be so raucous that the invitations would be rescinded. Or, more accurately, you might conclude that this thought experiment is pointless, because the invitations would never have been extended in the first place. European neo-Nazis and Jewish ultranationalists are definitely two distinct groups who wouldn’t get a look-in on an American campus.
But what if the Nazis are also Arabs? No, that’s not a thought experiment. This exact dilemma surfaced last week, after Georgetown University’s Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding announced a Dec. 5 conference entitled “Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy.”
Among the speakers was a little-known Egyptian Copt named Remy Jan, who was invited because he is a founder of an equally little-known activist group in Egypt called “Christians Against the Coup”—the “coup” in this case being the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as Egyptian president this past July.
A handful of bloggers and journalists did some digging on Jan. They came up with a particularly juicy detail of Jan’s career that had apparently eluded the organizers of the conference. Jan, they revealed, was also a founder of the Egyptian Nazi Party.
Once the news broke, the Al Waleed Center swiftly canceled Jan’s invitation. At the same time, they claimed no prior knowledge of Jan’s Nazi loyalties. “We had no idea that there was this issue out there,” said the center’s director, John Esposito, in response to a series of tweets from Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that highlighted Jan’s affiliation. Another conference participant, Dalia Mogahed, who is a former adviser to President Barack Obama on interfaith matters, tweeted this about Jan’s invite: “I can assure you the organizers had no idea about his ‘other baggage.’”
Had the conference organizers done their due diligence, they would have had a very clear idea of Jan’s toxic beliefs. After all, we’re not talking about a cloak and dagger espionage operation. A few seconds of Googling would have taken them to a video from 2011, in which Jan and other Egyptian Nazis explained their raison d’etre to a shocked Egyptian television host. Also, the Alwaleed Center has a Facebook account, as does Jan. Had the conference organizers paid a brief visit to the Facebook page of a man they were willing to fly to Washington, they would have discovered that he’d posted several pictures of Adolf Hitler alongside admiring tributes to the Fuhrer.
That they failed to do any of these things reinforces a suspicion that many of us have had about the blindness in the western academic world toward prejudice, bigotry and racism not against, but among, Arabs and Muslims. And in my view, it is this—and not the specific invitation to Jan—that is the real concern here.
What’s needed is a reality check. We have to stop thinking that institutions like the Alwaleed Center are dispassionate centers of academic inquiry. They are political advocacy operations, as proven by the Dec. 5 conference on Egypt, which is chock full of speakers from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose views on subjects like Jews and Israel are little different from those of the disinvited Remy Jan.
As the distinguished academic Martin Kramer observed, at the launch ceremony for the Alwaleed Center, which was a project of a private university, Georgetown, and a private businessman, the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, both the U.S. and Saudi flags were on display. Kramer wrote, tellingly, “The national flags send the implied message that this deal is somehow in the interests of the two countries and deserves their blessing.”
Is it in our national interest to treat Islamists as honored guests with a valuable perspective? Most Americans would demur if asked this question. And quite a few of them would ask how we got to a situation where universities are presenting political messaging as honest scholarship. That’s the right question to ask.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Mosaic, and many other publications.