Walid Shoebat’s controversial lecture last Wednesday continues to have a ripple effect on campus, including positive dialogue between Jewish and Muslim student groups aimed at developing unity.
During the past few days, debate regarding Shoebat’s portrayal of Muslims has swelled in the Daily Nexus opinion page and various Facebook groups supporting or opposing the self-proclaimed former Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist. Event organizer Alan Levine said he has personally received several negative responses from students, but maintains that he and other organizers merely wanted to bring another perspective to campus to encourage thoughtful and balanced debate.
“I was just trying to express a different point of view and that is what universities are about,” Levine said. “There are professors on campus that are just as liberal as [Shoebat] is conservative, but people are reacting very negatively and intensely.”
In response to increased discussion about Israeli-Palestinian relations, Santa Barbara Hillel Rabbi Allison Conyer developed a workshop called “By the Well of Hagar and Sarah.” The dialogue, which took place last week at the University Religious Center, encouraged Jewish and Muslim communication, and allowed students to express opinions in what Conyer called an honest and open environment.
“The group created profiles for a Jew and a Palestinian and presented an exchange of ideas in an on-going discussion,” Conyer said. “In working together on neutral grounds, the result was a raw and emotionally charged humanizing of the other [side].”
Conyer said she believed the dialogue successfully channeled participants’ negative reactions into something constructive. She said she is also in the process of organizing a group on campus that would regularly discuss Jewish and Muslim relations.
“This was a concrete practical project that funneled people’s fury to reveal positive aspects of humanity and awaken students by forcing people to enter into dialogue with one another,” she said.
American Students for Israel president Courtney Toretto, who participated in last week’s workshop, said although Shoebat’s speech was controversial, it resulted in an ultimately positive dialogue among the religious communities.
“I am very involved in [organizing a] dialogue and I have immense respect for our Muslim and Arab community, which I believe Shoebat impassioned to come forward and have dialogue,” Toretto, a fourth-year political science major, said. “I think that is brilliant.”
Also responsible for organizing the workshop, Hussam Mousa, vice president of the Islamic Society of Santa Barbara, said Conyer contacted him prior to Shoebat’s speech requesting that they work together to find a proactive approach to engage student leaders in a dialogue regarding the Middle East. Mousa said the workshop offered a more productive solution than just inviting what he called one-sided extremist speakers to promote their agenda.
“It was an intense exchange of emotions, but in a safe place where students could listen to the other side and talk about solutions,” said Mousa, a computer science graduate student and a board member of the Interfaith Initiative of Santa Barbara. “At the end, everyone was a common player for peace. Hopefully there will be more events like this because this [dialogue] is better than inviting extremist speakers that don’t lead anywhere positive and only inspire animosity.”
As for perceiving Shoebat himself, Toretto, who was also involved in organizing his lecture, said while she understood why students responded with anger to Shoebat’s depiction of Muslims, they failed to recognize the speaker’s actual message.
“I can understand why students were upset with the unfair portrayal of Muslims, but they missed the point that minority terrorist organizations twist Islam to support violent actions,” Toretto said. “His point was not for us to look at all Muslims with disgust, but to stand up and say, ‘I will not allow my religion to be twisted into something it is not.'”
Likewise, Levine said Shoebat was not trying to attack Muslims, but was trying to emphasize the existence of an extremist minority.
“The people attacking this event are missing, ignoring or trying to disprove the point,” Levine said. “Shoebat was not here to attack Islam, but to raise awareness of a growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s not such a ‘small minority’ as people say. Even if only 1 percent of Muslims support Islamic fundamentalism, that’s still 10 million people.”
However, Mousa said he felt the speaker’s dangerous message generalized Muslims and only served to inspire hate.
“It is very important we all make a distinction between Muslims who denounce violence and extremists like Bin Laden,” Mousa said. “Hate speech is very dangerous and Shoebat’s message is a form of hate speech.”