Conservative commentator David Horowitz was forced to cut short his speech on “Islamo-Fascism” in the face of repeated interruptions, heckling and catcalls from some audience members in a packed lecture room in White Hall on Wednesday.
The event played out like a tug-of-war between two groups: protestors who shouted questions or anti-conservative taglines after every few sentences Horowitz spoke and another faction in the audience who became increasingly vocal about their desire to hear him speak uninterrupted.
When the disruptions peaked about 20 minutes into Horowitz’s speech, Senior Vice Provost for Community and Diversity Ozzie Harris stood up at the back of the room and cautioned protesters to sit or risk being forcibly removed. Immediately, one man shouted: “Everyone stand up! They can’t take all of us!”
Horowitz and his bodyguard left the stage at this point and waited in a room adjacent to the lecture hall. Meanwhile, more and more dissenters stood and began chanting: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay. David Horowitz, go away!”
No attendants were forcibly removed, since Horowitz decided to stop his speech and depart altogether after a few minutes of conferring with Harris, his hosts the College Republicans and Senior Vice President for Campus Life John Ford. Many students and administrators — on all sides of the political spectrum — expressed their dismay that Horowitz could not finish his speech.
“They didn’t win, though,” College Republicans Chairman Ben Clark said of the protesters. “I don’t see how this is supportive of critical thinking, even for the most liberal.”
Making his Case
Horowitz himself at first seemed fazed but not deterred by the interruptions. As he paced the stage, he heard and ignored their complaints about his more conservative political stances or other, general complaints about the Iraq War, then moved along with his speech. But when the accusations became more frequent, he began engaging and challenging the dissenters.
“You don’t impress me with your great moral purity,” he said to them. “Please don’t shout your ignorance at me.”
Horowitz prefaced his speech by saying, “Anyone here to hear a diatribe or attacks about Muslims is in the wrong place.”
Then he explained the reasoning behind the term “Islamo-Fascism” by noting that fascism “enforces its principles onto every aspect of human life” and that many Muslim women, for instance, face such regulation. As an example, he cited 130 million Muslim women who have undergone genital mutilation to disable sexual pleasure.
Amid the ongoing catcalls from one group and the shushings from the other, Horowitz stressed the need for open intellectual debate and distinguished moderate Muslims from extremists.
“[Students] should be able to handle criticism, and you should be able to fight back,” he said, to applause. “Every Muslim in the world has a stake in stopping Al Qaeda and Hizbollah. If they are successful, there will be no need for this discussion.”
Most of the vocal protesters at the event were not affiliated with the University, according to the College Republicans, the Muslim Students Association, University administrators and some professors at the event. During the short-lived speech, a handful of them stood, their backs to Horowitz, sporting orange ribbons and signs taped on their backs to show opposition. When Horowitz first took the stage, they greeted him with the Nazi salute.
Clark said that he recognized some of these protesters as Emory students, and said problems would have probably still arisen if the event had been closed off from the public. But Clark could not identify any protesting students by name.
“I really liked that people were able to stop this fascist rally from going down tonight,” said Jay Pasinelli, a dissenter who is not affiliated with the University. “We cannot be a docile audience after what we read on his web page. He ran away like a coward.”
Justin, a student from Georgia State who declined to give his full name because he said he feared public retaliation from Horowitz, said the pre-scripted question-and-answer format frustrated some of the attendants who hoped to engage Horowitz after his speech. Failing that, he said they resorted to interrupting.
“People wanted to come here and say something to this guy,” he said. “[He’s] here to create an atmosphere where Muslim students are targeted.”
But Muslim Students Association President Sarah Zaim, speaking on behalf of the MSA, disagreed with the confrontational tactics that suffocated Horowitz’s speech.
“It’s such a shame,” Zaim said. “This is an academic environment. We’re supposed to listen, especially if we disagree.”
Zaim said none of the MSA members attending the event stood or voiced protest. They did submit questions before the lecture, she said, about why Horowitz has not been more vocal in supporting moderate Muslims and why he chose the word ‘fascism’ to define something as expansive as a religion.
While Horowitz waited in the adjoining room after Vice Provost Harris’ call to order, Zaim considered addressing the audience as MSA president to ask that they let Horowitz finish his speech. Afterward, she bumped into Horowitz at Starbucks and told him she regretted how the event transpired.
“That was a very generous thing to do,” Horowitz said. “It made me very interested in what she thinks.”
Views on Free Speech
Imam Nadim Ali and other members of Atlanta’s Muslim community gathered after the event for an impromptu discussion in White Hall’s lobby.
Ali, of the West End Masjid Community, accused Horowitz of promoting a “dyslexic view of history” when he approaches Islam.
“[But] I was silent,” he said. “He does have a right to be ignorant.”
Ali said all faiths have historically had problems with women’s issues and war, two reasons Horowitz gives in justification of the term “Islamo-Fascism.”
He said the vocal protesters probably saw Horowitz as “a figurehead for the right-wing leadership” running the country and aimed their criticism during the event accordingly. He said people weren't wrong to speak up during the speech.
“There was free discourse on both sides,” Ali said. “[Horowitz] could have ignored them, but he chose to engage people.”
It was not an opinion shared by other attendees, such as Emory English professor Mark Bauerlein, who decried what he saw as a suppression of an Emory event by outsiders. An event, he said, that could have prompted a valuable educational opportunity for students.
“This is a poor day for academic debate,” he said. “This is not simply something against David Horowitz, it’s something against Emory University.”
University President James W. Wagner did not attend the speech but said the outcome would have been different had it been limited to Emory students and faculty.
"I'm confident that our Emory community would have expressed its support or disdain in a method more consistent with academic discourse," he said. "It is a sad reminder that the sort of ideals that we hold as community at Emory are not universally appreciated and practiced."
Vice Provost Harris and Vice President Ford, the most senior administrators at the event, declined to comment.
Horowitz also said he thought the event had been overtaken by a group of outsiders he later identified on his blog as the United for Peace and Justice.
“All they wanted to do is say their slogan,” he said. “They just came to destroy [the event]. It’s going to, unfortunately, give Emory a black eye, which it doesn’t deserve.”
On Thursday, Horowitz spoke at George Washington University, where he said the audience had been "polite" during his speech. There, he fielded questions at the end, some of which challenged his views.
And one demonstrator there was arrested, he said, near the very end of the event.
"You have to admire his discipline," Horowitz said. "The guy waited two hours."
Had he been given the chance to finish his speech at Emory, Horowitz said he would have addressed the importance of understanding who the enemy is, how American blunders with terrorism date back to President Carter's administration and his take on Iraq.
— Read a transcript of the Wheel editors' interview with David Horowitz.
Contact Salvador Rizzo