Tuesday, March 22, 2005

[Lebanon] Interpreting the words of Brigitte Gabriel

Sara Berger, Queen’s Hillel President

March 22, 2005 proved to be quite an eventful night here at Queen’s University. Hillel and Queen’s Israeli Peace Initiative (QIPI) co-sponsored a talk that evening by a Lebanese-Christian woman named Brigitte Gabriel.

Ms. Gabriel had informed us she would address the timely situation in Lebanon, as well as the growing trend towards democracy in the Middle East region. Unfortunately, Ms. Gabriel did not deliver what we expected.

Elements of her talk, drawing on her experiences during the Lebanese Civil War, displayed an acute animosity towards Islamic and Arab culture. Had we known that her talk would become uncomfortable or hostile for audience members, we would not have invited her to campus or even attached our name to such an overtly controversial speaker.

Hillel and QIPI both pride themselves on focusing on the positive aspects of Israel, while refraining from pointing the proverbial finger at our Muslim and Arab neighbours.

Hillel and QIPI still feel that the message of tolerance and diversity is one which we should all be proud to support. We understand that lectures like Ms. Gabriel’s can only heighten existing tensions, and not diffuse them as we have worked so hard to do this year.

What has been disappointing, however, has been the reaction to Ms Gabriel’s talk. While a University is meant to be a forum for the airing of diverse views, and a place for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, there have been only wild and spurious accusations, threats, and calls for mass muzzling.

I disagree with large tracts of her talk. I found that her views and experiences clash with mine, and that her prescription is one that offends me. However, I stand firmly against those who wish to shut her up because her opinions clash with those of others.

Over the last several years, we have seen a general decline in debate in the public sphere. When people disagree with, or are offended by, the words, acts, or views of others, the reaction has been to name-call or attempt to stifle their speech. I disagree with Brigitte Gabriel because I know too many Muslims—including many here at Queen’s—who do not believe that every Jew is, or should be, a target.

I disagree with Brigitte Gabriel because I have seen many examples of Jews and Muslims living together, peacefully—including in Canada and Israel—and believe that, one day, peace can come to the entire region.

I disagree with Brigitte Gabriel because I believe that hope, optimism, and a focus on shared values is the route to progress in the Middle East, not despair, cynicism, and a focus on what divides us.

But I also disagree with those who think that, because I disagree with the content of her talk, I should also disagree with her right to air her views.

Hillel and the QIPI assert that the critical thought processes we are learning in university demand that challenging and provocative ideas be debated.

We assert that the liberty and democratic ideals we share as Canadians demands an environment of free speech on our campuses.

We are also aware that in challenging, provoking, and utilizing the rights we have, we also have a responsibility to our campus community to maintain a respectful discourse.

Emily Keogh, ArtSci ’05

On Tuesday, March 22, Brigitte Gabriel, a Zionist Arab, was invited to speak at Queen’s University on the status of democracy in Israel and Lebanon. As a fourth-year student of political science, I have had numerous occasions to learn about the situation in the Middle East and I am constantly seeking out new opinions in order to broaden my knowledge.

Unfortunately, Ms. Gabriel was unable to provide me with any useful information and was indeed guilty of massive generalizations and oversimplifications regarding the Arab culture. Her talk was replete with rhetoric akin to hate speech and only in the last three minutes or so did she actually discuss democracy in the Middle East.

I would instead like to address some of the implications of having her as a speaker, in relation to both the Queen’s community and to the more general picture of conflict in the Middle East. From my understanding of the situation, the group responsible for inviting Ms. Gabriel to talk maintains they were unaware of her strong ideological perspectives. This could easily have been ascertained—within seconds of “Googling” her, I found several previous interviews that make her views and opinions fairly obvious.

To their credit or discredit, this group may not have been aware of her skewed perceptions, but by no means is it unreasonable to say that they should have and could have been aware. Understandably, the Arab and Muslim students on campus are outraged. An outright assault on their culture and religion is holistically unacceptable, and they are sincerely questioning the motives involved in bringing this speaker to Queen’s. Personally, I believe that mutual understanding is necessary if Arabs and Jews are to coexist and co-operate on the same campus, a goal that was definitely hindered by this talk.

Instead of using her experiences to foster an atmosphere of mutual understanding, Ms. Gabriel only provided more ammunition for confrontation. This holds true for the Jewish and Arab populations on campus, but in a broader context as well. It is completely beyond my comprehension why anyone would want to agitate the situation, but especially why someone who survived one of the many wars in the Middle East would use her experience to provoke resentment, anger and antipathy.

We also need to recognize that even though Ms. Gabriel herself is an Arab, she is not in a position to make massive generalizations about the cultural practices and moral integrity of an entire population. She used her Arab heritage as a platform to criticize Islam, which she obviously knows little about.

Anecdotal accounts of history can be valuable when put into context; however, it is equally important that we as students recognize the limited usefulness of inferring truth and facts from personal accounts.

So, the question now becomes why do we acquiesce in the face of controversy and racism? I have not yet heard an apology from the group that brought Ms. Gabriel to Queen’s or witnessed any kind of organized protest. Is the problem simply that the group under attack is not vocal enough, or is it that we accept the stereotypes that were expounded?

Perhaps I am too hasty in my criticism of the lack of reasonable response to the talk, and perhaps actions are being taken to rectify the situation. Any actions taken, however, need to encompass all the parties involved, as well as the student population at large.

Interpreting the words of Brigitte Gabriel - Queen's University, Canada 2005

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