Update: On March 30, Jasser issued a response to the Muslim Student Association's statement. Jasser's response and MSA's original statement are included in full at the end of the article. The same day, Duke College Republicans updated the location of the event to the Devil's Den. On March 31, Duke MSA changed the location of the teach-in to the Chapel.
An event planned for Monday about American Muslim identity has stirred controversy on campus.
The talk, “The American Muslim Identity,” will bring to campus Zuhdi Jasser, a medical doctor and the president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. After the event was announced, the Muslim Student Association announced a teach-in protest and the Alexander Hamilton Society pulled its sponsorship of the event following public pushback.
“[We] think everyone, whether you agree or disagree, benefits from hearing people like Dr. Jasser—who is a syndicated contributor for the [Wall Street Journal], CNN, MSNBC, FOX and others—speak on this issue,” wrote the executive board of the Duke College Republicans, one of the event’s sponsors, in an email Thursday. “In short, I hope that we have a thought-provoking, civil discussion.”
The event was originally marketed under the title “The American Muslim Identity: Patriot or Insurgent,” and is described in the Facebook event description as being a moderated conversation and question-and-answer session with Jasser. In an email, DCR’s executive board wrote that the original name was chosen by the speaker, and that they decided to change the name to appeal to a broader audience and better reflect the scope of the event.
The topics to be discussed include the nature of Islamic extremism, radicalization and the responsibilities of American Muslims. It was originally sponsored by the Duke College Republicans, the Alexander Hamilton Society, Duke Political Union and Young Americans for Liberty—but by 6 p.m. March 28, AHS had issued a statement revoking their sponsorship of the event.
The event’s description noted that Jasser is a son of Syrian immigrants who fled Ba’athist oppression and is an American Muslim. He was previously the vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and a co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement in 2015.
The executive board of DCR wrote in an email that they had reached out to invite MSA to participate in the event, but said that MSA did not respond prior to announcing their protest. In an email Thursday night, junior Sanjidah Ahmed, head of MSA's Social Justice Committee, clarified that MSA was not invited to participate in the decision-making process and was informed about the event after it had been planned.
“We had structured this whole event as a bipartisan, good-faith effort to promote a variety of perspectives on a complex and multifaceted topic,” wrote the DCR executive board.
A statement issued by the Muslim Students Association March 29 expressed concerns about bringing Jasser to campus. The organization said it was “outraged, disappointed, but unsurprised” by the groups' decision to bring him. MSA said that Jasser does not speak for them.
The group also said that Jasser’s support of discriminatory surveillance against American Muslim communities “treats all Muslims as potential would-be terrorists.”
They also highlight his claim that President Donald Trump’s travel ban would prevent Islamic extremism from entering the United States, and claim that he has a history of attacking Muslims who have different opinions than him as being “supporters of violence.”
“Not only are his claims morally disgusting, but his policy positions have been proven harmful over and over again,” reads the statement. “While Zuhdi Jasser may claim to speak for us, his words only harm us. He does NOT speak for us.”
The group is hosting a “Teach In Against Islamophobia and Racism” outside the Jasser event at 6:30 p.m. on Monday to protest it. The MSA statement noted that the goal of the teach-in is “to un-learn these harmful ideas which are unfortunately widespread across the political spectrum and frequently taught in classrooms." It also pushed back on the binary of “patriot/citizen” and “insurgent/terrorist” present in the event’s original title.
AHS decided to pull its sponsorship after initially deciding to co-sponsor it Feb. 26. Junior Rachel Sereix, president of AHS, wrote that they held a club-wide vote March 28 in which they voted to rescind that support.
“We decided to rescind our involvement because we intended for the event to provide insightful, political discourse that relates to foreign policy—we realized that some students in the Muslim community felt that the event was demoralizing or demeaning to their culture or religion,” Sereix wrote. “We want to cosponsor events that facilitate discussion, yet in an environment where no student feels targeted.”
In a statement sent out to its listserv and posted on the original event’s page March 28, AHS announced it was rescinding the support, but still encouraged people to attend the event.
“We did not intend for this event to frame this controversial issue in a way that is demeaning or demoralizing to the Muslim community,” the group’s statement read. “We encourage any and all members of the Duke and Durham community to attend the event to raise questions and engage in insightful political discourse. We apologize for any discomfort that this has caused.”
Junior Alex Murphy, co-president of Duke Political Union—one of the organizations sponsoring the event, wrote in an email that as a nonpartisan organization, the group supports MSA’s teach-in to the same degree as the speaker and that their co-sponsorship is not an endorsement of Jasser’s opinions. She wrote they are excited when an event generates constructive political dialogue, and that they look forward to hearing all sides voice their opinions.
“As a nonpartisan group, we encourage political dialogue and welcome civil discourse and dissent,” she wrote. “We sympathize with MSA’s concerns and support planned protests and planned engagement with the event.”
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Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head.