Honor Diaries: Who is afraid of human rights?

George Orwell’s novel 1984 portrays a violent dystopian society surviving through the continuous suppression and falsification of information. We know first-hand that this is how oppression works throughout the world. One of us (Struckman-Johnson) spent decades piecing together difficult-to-find video clips, news articles, and photos in order to successfully teach about the patriarchal oppression of women around the world. One of us (Sternadori) was cautioned at the age of six by her parents (members of the Bulgarian Communist Party) never to repeat their political jokes, lest something horrible happened just by uttering some words.

We have come to embrace the idea that transparency is crucial to ending any form of violence. This is why we were shocked by the recent fervent attempts — in 2015, in the United States of America — to ban the screening of a documentary, Honor Diaries, which tackles the problem of worldwide honor killings and other violence against women, often embedded in state laws, tradition and political indifference.

Honor Diaries is set to be screened on Friday, 10 April, at 1:45 p.m., in the Muenster University Center Grand Ballroom at the University of South Dakota during the upcoming Women and Gender conference. In addition, Muslim women’s rights activist Raheel Raza, one of the nine women featured in the film, is attending the conference and will participate in a post-screening discussion.

But not all is well just because it ends well. The road to this screening has been fraught with obstacles. The film has been accused of Islamophobia, even though it is supported by groups such as Muslims Facing Tomorrow, the Alliance of Iranian Women and other organizations, most of which are women’s rights groups. The brave women shown in the documentary — like Raheel Raza — are either Muslim or were born in Muslim families, and they speak of making the film as an almost-religious duty to humanity.

The film, however, has faced backlash from other Muslims. According to an opinion piece appearing in The Boston Globe, the attempts to censor the film can be traced to an organization called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Indeed, the organization has campaigned to cancel at least one of the film’s screenings, as indicated by its 2014 letter to the United Nations Foundation.

What is curious is that, as one can see from the letter, CAIR appears to have no issues with the film’s content.  The organization does not say that the film’s content is Islamophobic, and does not point to any specific elements in the film it finds questionable. CAIR’s problem seems to be not with the film, but with the two executive producers (who in the film business tend to have limited power over the production content) and one of the film’s 42 partner organizations, the Clarion Project, which is said to have funded the documentary. CAIR denies the female filmmakers any agency by shifting the focus of attention away from their work and away from the issues they raise. This is a textbook example of the so-called “ad hominem” logical fallacy, which entails damning the source while saying nothing about the actual content of the message.

How did this controversy play out at USD? It was more dramatic than we were used to seeing. At first, however, the conversation about screening Honor Diaries occurred in a very peaceful and ordinary manner. The film’s promotional team sent emails to faculty and staff members affiliated with the Women and Gender Studies program at USD, inviting them to host a screening.  Some of these faculty and staff members forwarded the emails to one of us (Sternadori), suggesting that the film be included in the program of the Women and Gender conference in April. Then, once the film became part of the conference program in January, a student group, the Association for Advancement of Women’s Rights (AAWR), insistently asked to sponsor the film because “it tells an important story about women’s rights in the global community”.

All seemed well until a faculty member from USD’s College of Health Sciences emailed one of us (Sternadori) to say that she “truly believe[d] that showing this movie goes against ‘Inclusive Excellence’ that this University is working hard to achieve”. She followed up by meeting with other members of the university community and voicing her concerns to them. The tide shifted, and a film that is truly heartbreaking — in ways that should never be politicised — became the centre of a massive controversy.

On 20 March, AAWR sent an email to rescind its sponsorship of Honor Diaries because, according to the message, “we are concerned about disrespecting or presenting biased portrayals of the Muslim community.” At a planning meeting for the Women and Gender conference later that day, members of this women’s student group said they did not want to be involved with the film because their office in the Diversity Center is next to the office of the Muslim Student Association, and it is very important for them to maintain a good working relationship.  Then, two USD faculty members insisted on removing the film from the conference program. (In addition, a screening of Honor Diaries scheduled for Sunday, 22 March, by the Campus Activities Board mysteriously disappeared from USD’s program of events).

In the end, to ban or not to ban Honor Diaries from the Women and Gender conference was fought over on two occasions by a group of people (including Sternadori and Struckman-Johnson) raised in communities with Christian roots. On both occasions, a mythical Muslim “community” was present like the elephant in the room. Some people very much wanted to defend it.

But they never considered some important questions: who are we to judge which Muslim community or group is more equal than others?  Who are we to agree with CAIR’s condemnation of the film over the support from the Council of Muslims Facing Tomorrow and the Alliance of Iranian Women? And who is afraid of screening a film that exposes truly horrific human rights violations?

Even though Honor Diaries remained on the conference program as planned, some faculty still expressed concerns about how we should “frame” the post-screening discussion, given that no members of the Muslim Student Association and not even the faculty member who initially challenged the film are planning to attend. This raises yet another question: who are we to “frame” anything at a public university, where the free flow of ideas is supposed to be encouraged and not restricted?

This has also been very upsetting because it is not the first time in the history of USD’s Women and Gender conference when certain content has created discomfort and resistance — but it is the first time anyone has tried to ban such content. One of us (Struckman-Johnson) remembers the time in the 1980s when USD’s women faculty won a class action suit challenging the gender wage gap and then-President Joe McFadden set in motion the first women’s conference on campus. Since then, the conference has presented many controversial issues generating much “discomfort” — including abortion rights panels, exposes by Native women challenging tribal corruption (to the great displeasure of their Native communities), and even a presentation by a group of midwives who could have been arrested for participating in the conference.

And in the past few weeks, we have been fighting over which slivers of a community (or a perceived community) are more authentic and more deserving of our attention than others.  The misguided effort to ban Honor Diaries has shaken our confidence in USD women’s ability to stand up to the oppression that so conveniently profits others. We cannot imagine that anyone who cares about the misery, suffering, mutilation and murder of women would consider banning this film.

It is encouraging, however, that, since the controversy began, we have seen an incredible outpouring of support. One of us (Sternadori) received approximately 1,270 emails from people thanking her for opposing the attempt to cancel the film screening. Colleagues from other universities expressed support as well. For example, Lyombe (Leo) Eko at the University of Iowa, wrote to say: “Banning this movie from the USD would be a naked act of censorship that is incompatible with everything universities stand for. The USD needs to teach its students that under the First Amendment, the rights of the speaker (the movie makers and Miglena Sternadori) trump the feelings of the viewers (the censors) on matters of public concern.”

We encourage the readers of Index on Censorship to watch Honor Diaries, which streams on Netflix and Amazon, and to carefully consider its content and the grounds on which it has been so vehemently criticised.  We also hope that Orwell’s work will continue to be widely read. In 2015, he is as relevant as ever because — contrary to what the Party says in 1984 — ignorance is not strength.

As women, we have been socialized to play well with others. But we should not regard this as a categorical imperative. We know from the unending history of genocide and from experiments like those of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo that there are times when getting along with some people at the expense of others is the wrong choice that leads to loss of life and indescribable suffering on a large scale.

This guest column was published on April 8 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

Padraig Reidy: We can’t allow responsibilities to come before rights

Copenhagen size

Flowers left outside the Copenhagen synagogue where a man was killed (Photo: Karen Mardahl/Flickr, under Creative Commons license. The image has been cropped.)

How does one avoid being a potential target for murder by a jihadist? If you’re Jewish, you probably can’t, unless you attempt to somehow stop being Jewish (though I suspect, much like the proto-nazi mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, IS reserves the right to decide who is a Jew).

Everyone else? Well, we can be a little quieter. We can, perhaps, not hold meetings with people who have drawn pictures of Mohammed. We can, perhaps, recognise that the right to free speech comes with responsibilities, as The Guardian’s Hugh Muir wrote. The responsibility to be respectful; the responsibility not to provoke; the responsibility not to get our fool selves shot in our thick heads.

This seemed to be the message coming after last weekend’s atrocity in Copenhagen. Oddly, I just found myself hesitating while typing the word “atrocity” there. Felt a little dramatic. Because already, amid the condemnations and what ifs? and what abouts? that have dogged us since this wretched year kicked into gear with the murders in Paris, already, the pattern seems set. Young Muslim men in Europe get guns, and then try, and for the most part succeed, in killing Jews and cartoonists, or people who happen to be in the same room as cartoonists. Then the condemnation comes, then the self-examination: what is it that’s wrong with Europe that makes people do these things? The things we definitely know are wrong are inequality and racism, so that’s where we focus our attentions. Europe’s past rapaciousness in the Middle East, or its recent and current interventions: these, on a societal level, are believed to be mistakes, so they too, must be examined (it could be argued that non-intervention, particularly in Syria, has been at least as much of a factor).

What else? Maybe we caused offence. Maybe we crossed a line when we allowed those cartoonists to draw those pictures. Maybe that’s it. We’ve offended two billion or so Muslims, and of course, some of them are bound to react more strongly than others. So we’d best be nice to them in future (we leave the implied “or else” hanging). And being nice means not upsetting people.

This is, as I’m fairly certain I’ve written before, a patronising and divisive way of looking at the world. Patronising because of the casual assumption that Muslims are inevitably drawn to violence by their commitment to their faith, and divisive both because it sets a double standard and because it entrenches the notion that Muslims are somehow outside of “us” in European society.

That divisiveness is not merely useful to xenophobes and Islamophobes. It is equally important in the agenda for many types of Islamist.

Take a small but instructive example. The BBC Two comedy Citizen Khan is possibly the most normal portrayal of Muslims British mainstream comedy has ever seen. The lead character started life as an absurd “community leader” in the brilliant BBC 2 spoof documentary Bellamy’s People, before morphing into an archetypal bumbling silly sitcom patriarch in his own successful show.

Citizen Khan is a classic British sitcom in which the family happen to be practicing Muslims. It is not cutting-edge comedy, boldly taking on racial and religious blah blah blah; it’s family entertainment.

Cause for celebration, surely, that practicing Muslims are being portrayed as normal people rather than radical weirdos? Not according to the risibly-titled Islamic Human Rights Commission, a small group of Ayatollah Khomeini fans who have nominated Citizen Khan for its annual Islamophobia award, claiming the show features “Muslims depicted as racist, sexist and backward. Obviously”. They don’t want to see Muslims on television as normal people, because that would undermine the division they seek to engender. I doubt any of the people at the IHRC who suggested Citizen Khan was Islamophobic are genuinely hurt or offended by the programme; if they are, it’s because it features a portrayal of Muslim people, by Muslim people, that they cannot control. It’s really got nothing to do with “offence”.

Likewise, I refuse to believe that the killers of Paris or Copenhagen have been sitting around stewing for years over “blasphemous” cartoons. To imagine that these murders took place because of perceived slight or offence is to cast them as crimes of passion. I don’t buy it. These were, at best in the eyes of the killers, legal executions for the crime of blasphemy, carried out because their interpretation of the law demanded that they do so.

The same interpretation of the law means that these men are allowed, mandated even, to kill Jews. So that is what they do.

However much cant we spill about “no rights without responsibilities” (that is, the preposterous “responsibility” not to offend), the fact that people are being murdered for who they are rather than what they did should make us realise that there is no responsibility we can exercise that will mitigate the core problem: a murderous totalitarian ideology has taken hold. It has territory, it has machinery, it has propaganda, and it has a certain dark appeal, just as totalitarian ideologies before have had. ISIS or Daesh or whatever you choose to call it is calling people to its cause. AQAP competes for adherents.

Some will point to the previous violent criminal records of the killers in Paris and Copenhagen and say “You see? They were mere thugs: the ideology barely comes into it.” But come on, who do you think the Brownshirts recruited? Bookish dentists? The fact that thugs are drawn to a thuggish ideology mitigates neither.

This week, Denmark’s only Jewish radio station went off air due to security concerns. This is where responsibilities before rights leads us. Shut up, keep quiet, and if something happens then it’s your fault for being irresponsible. Irresponsible enough to wish to practice your culture and religion freely. Irresponsible enough to “offend” murderers with your very existence. This line of thinking is not just cowardly, it is accusatory.

The correct answer to the request that we show responsibility with our rights, is, as revolutionary socialist James Connolly put it, “a high-minded assertion” of rights themselves. Not just the right to speak freely, but the right to live freely.

This article was posted on 19 February 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

Trouble in Gainesville

Gainesville continues to be the battleground for a debate about Islamophobia and free speech in the United States, thanks to the Dove World Outreach Centre, which has its headquarters in the Florida city.  Pastor Terry Jones first brought international attention to the centre when he threatened to burn a Koran on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2010. More recently, the centre has been involved in a court case against the Alachua County school board, after student members of the church were sent home for wearing T-shirts saying “Islam is of the devil”. According to Senior District Judge Stephan Mickle, the decision to send home the students does not violate their First Amendment rights, and he said that the message was “confrontational” and “not conducive to civil discourse on religious issues”.  On the other hand, Pastor Wayne Sapp was surprised by the ruling, saying he felt that the case was a clear violation of the rights of the students.

The Dove World Outreach Centre actually seems to be a small group of attention-seeking loons, not unlike the Westboro Baptist Church. My attitude towards both organisations is the same: let them express themselves.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I was a hijab-wearing student at an American high school. In the few days following the attacks, I remember a few of us complaining about students wearing anti-Osama Bin Laden T-shirts because we were afraid of backlash against Muslim students. Rather than questioning our fear, the administration made the students change their shirts. Looking back, I disagree with the teenage version of myself. I did not feel safer when “controversial” perspectives were not brought up in class and I watched my school become more segregated and tense. Instead, my school should have made more of an effort to create a dialogue and, more importantly, make students like myself feel safe enough to be normal students free to express our opinions.

Gainesville will not have to worry about the Dove World Outreach Centre casting a negative light on the town for much longer. The centre is relocating from the 20-acre property and 20-30 younger members of the church will be moving to a different county. So Gainesville can return to being  well known for university football and Gatorade rather than a man with a handlebar moustache and threats to burn Korans.