On one side: Charles Johnson, senior at Claremont McKenna College (CMC), majoring in government and economics.
On the other: the faculty, the administration, and a radical professor who praises terrorist groups and denounces both America and Israel–and happens to lead CMC’s new Middle East Studies program.
For the past year, Johnson has sounded alarms about the opinions of Arabic scholar Bassam Frangieh. And for the past year, CMC has circled the wagons.
Last week, in an unprecedented defensive gesture, the faculty voted 59-9 to support Frangieh on the basis of CMC’s “long and respected tradition of academic freedom and respect for diverse intellectual viewpoints” as well as diversity of “race…and national origin.”
Controversies over the radical views of Middle East studies professors are, sadly, not unusual on American campuses. What is different about the Frangieh case is that the administration at CMC has gone to great lengths to cover up the truth about Frangieh’s views–even editing his Wikipedia page–while ignoring the voluminous evidence Johnson has presented, and while rallying the faculty to oppose and isolate Johnson.
In April 2010, Johnson penned an article in the Claremont Independent, a conservative student newspaper, revealing that Frangieh had signed a petition in July 2006 calling upon intellectuals around the world to boycott “Israeli academic and scientific institutions that do not condemn the Israeli aggression against Lebanon.” The petition also described Hezbollah as “heroic,” and referred to Israel as a “Zionist killing machine.”
Amidst concerns raised by students and alumni, the administration defended Frangieh’s right to exercise “free speech and academic freedom.”
Undeterred, Johnson continued to pursue his complaint. He initially discovered the petition Frangieh signed by using a simple Google search; now he used Google Translate to search for articles in Arabic related to Frangieh, which he then had professionally translated–at his own expense.
Johnson’s research yielded astonishing results, such as Frangieh’s effusive praise for Hamas and Hizbollah in a 2006 interview with the Arabic website Al Jabha (“The Front”):
Q: What is your opinion of Hamas?
A: The authority of the Hamas movement has come today. I look upon it with great joy. Hamas has created the beginning of the end. It might be the only way to purify the alternating Palestinian authorities from the cement dealers and thieves of the revolution. I have begun to feel optimistic. I respect greatly some of the Islamic movements. All of the other banners have fallen. All of the Arab governments now existent represent an insult to the Arabs and to their peoples, and an obstacle in the face of progress and democracy. I believe if not for Hamas, there is not Hezbollah. Then what would there for the Arabs? Nothing, except for humiliation and shame. Congratulations to Hamas and its victory.
In the same interview, Frangieh (who failed to respond to queries for this article, requesting that he confirm or deny the quotes attributed to him) slammed the United States, and expressed a strong desire to leave the country:
Q: What do you say about life in America?
A: Life in America has no taste and no life. It is suffocating, but one does not know that he is suffocating, for the suffocation comes by degrees. It’s like the frog who is initially placed in a large bowl of lukewarm water, then starts to feel uncomfortable but does not know why. Then they start heating up the water little by little. You adapt to the increasing temperature, then they continue to increase the temperature gradually until you slowly suffocate. America does not have intimate relationships. Expedience is everything. It has no purity. Everything is superficial, artificial, material. Either the man suffocates, or he turns into a machine–a machine which loses its ability to discern that it is a machine. You stop thinking, and you go places you do not know in convoys of bigger machines. I am amazed by those who have a place to go and yet stay here. If I had a place, I would go there and stay there happily, and would not stay one more day here.
For a man who evidently hates America and wants to leave, Frangieh has made some interesting career choices. Not only is he a tenured professor at Claremont McKenna, but he has also worked for the U.S. government, training American diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of State, according to the biography that adorns his forthcoming textbook, Arabic for Life (Yale University Press, 2011).
As Johnson was publishing his findings at the Claremont Independent, at his own blog, and at BigPeace.com, he made another discovery: that Richard Rodner, Claremont McKenna’s VP of Communication and Public Affairs, had likely edited Frangieh’s Wikipedia page (under the username “Rrodner”) to remove references to Frangieh’s support for terror groups. (Rodner declined to provide comment for this article confirming or denying Johnson’s claim.)
Late last December, Dean Gregory Hess (who also failed to answer queries for this article) sent a statement to faculty members informing them that the administration had conducted its own investigation, and concluded that “the College does not agree with the student’s opinion that Professor Frangieh supports terrorism.” Hess added that “Professor Frangieh has specifically and emphatically denied that he supports terrorism, or any acts of terrorism by any organization.”
Dean Hess did not cite any actual statement by Frangieh to that effect. He also did not comment on Frangieh’s call for a boycott of Israeli academics–a boycott that has been condemned throughout the academic world as a violation of the very academic freedom that Hess invoked in Frangieh’s defense. Dean Hess did, however, try to defend CMC’s hiring process, whose integrity is in doubt after Johnson’s simple Google searches.
As the debate on campus continued and intensified, the faculty met in late February to consider a resolution supporting Frangieh. It failed on procedural grounds: it had not been submitted 72 hours ahead of time. Yet it was revived in a rushed, closed “executive session” called by Dean Hess a few days later, the first such session at CMC in recent memory. Hess denied Johnson’s request to address the session, and the resolution passed.
The text of the resolution is fascinating. It does not deal with the evidence. Instead, it invokes the principle of diversity–not just intellectual diversity, but diversity of “race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion and cultures, geographic and national origin (both U.S. and international), socio-economics, life experiences, and intellectual viewpoints.” And that is all–the sole arguments in favor of supporting Bassam Frangieh.
The faculty has simply played a highbrow version of the race card. Intellectual diversity alone is an insufficient defense, because it would require the faculty to be honest and explicit about what Frangieh’s intellectual views actually are.
So the faculty reminded CMC that another kind of diversity–the arbitrary categories of race and nationality–were also at stake. To pursue the truth–as Johnson has done–is to oppose “diversity” at CMC.
Of course Frangieh is entitled to his anti-American, anti-Israel, pro-Hamas and pro-Hezbollah views–and CMC is entitled to promote him, at the cost of its own reputation. That is academic freedom.
Academic freedom also means that scholars and observers can and will judge CMC harshly for its sloppy vetting process, for manipulating the evidence, for supporting a professor who embraces America’s enemies, and for the battle it has waged against a lone student for telling the truth.
(Full disclosure: Charles Johnson was a volunteer researcher on my 2010 congressional campaign in Illinois.)