In a controversial move, the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) have invited Robert Spencer to speak at Stanford tomorrow. Spencer is the founder of Jihad Watch, a platform that aims to draw the West’s attention to the Muslim ambition to “destroy their [Western] societies and impose Islamic law upon them — and to commit violence to that end”. Spencer is the author of twelve books--the latest of which is provocatively titled Confessions of an Islamophobe. Though the College Republicans claim in an op-ed that Spencer “made his theological arguments thoughtfully, backing them up with plenty of evidence from Islamic texts, history, and the actions of modern-day radical Islamic terrorists,” his views have been rejected by leading academic scholars of Islam and international relations.
Spencer’s upcoming visit has provoked conversations about whether his speech poses a threat the Muslim community and broader campus, and what motivations drove SCR to invite him. Spencer certainly reserves his right to speak on the platform SCR provided him -- not by any virtue of his, but by virtue of the right to free speech that Stanford’s administration upholds and the student body ought to respect. But, contrary to SCR’s claims, inviting Spencer to campus will not advance intellectual discourse surrounding Islam and the nature of terrorism. Instead, it will only serve to harm and further divide the campus community. More alarming to the campus conservative movement, it will also paint a negative caricature of college conservatism that can only harm SCR’s goal of challenging the liberal consensus.
There are substantial grounds to label JihadWatch as a platform that propagates Islamophobia. A section called “Islam 101” on the site draws a dangerous and inaccurate depiction of the violence of Islam, in contrast with the peaceful nature of Christianity. It states: “If Christianity teaches humility, tolerance, and forgiveness, why are so many Christians arrogant, intolerant, and vindictive? The answer is obvious: in any religion or ideology there will be many who profess, but do not practice, its tenets. Just as it is often easier for a Christian to hit back, play holier-than-thou, or disdain others, so it is often easier for a Muslim to stay at home rather than embark on jihad. Hypocrites are everywhere.” In other words, Muslims are either terrorists or hypocrites.
Such public statements have led the United Kingdom to ban Spencer from entering the country on the grounds that he would incite dangerous levels of public unrest and Islamophobia. Many Stanford students are understandably outraged and hurt that their classmates would invite Spencer to campus. Stanford Against Islamophobia is organizing an event protesting the talk. Armed security will be present to quell potential altercations between attendees and protesters. Whether security’s involvement proves to be effective or ends up catalyzing violence is something I wish we will not find out.
Though it is reasonable for students to find his talk at Stanford repugnant, Spencer should nevertheless have a right to voice his opinions. Given that Spencer professes blatantly unscholarly opinions that propagate that Islam is an inherently violent religion, the administration’s decision was a difficult one. However, school officials did a fine job in their decision not to exclude hate speech. As Stanford President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell wrote in a recent blog post, “freedom of inquiry and the free expression of ideas are fundamental to the mission of the university.” The Supreme Court has affirmed that there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment.
Nonetheless, the decision to invite Spencer is puzzling. In fact, it’s downright foolish. If the College Republicans wish to build a following on campus they should set an example of provocative but civilized dialogue, rather than emotional extremism. Robert Spencer is not an ideal spokesperson for the average Stanford Republican -- the fact that the former SCR president reportedly resigned in protest after SCR’s board decided to host him proves this.
Though Spencer’s presence in the campus is not a moral high point for SCR, could it be a pragmatic success in spreading conservative thought on campus? Not really. In inviting Spencer to campus, the College Republicans risk linking the image of campus conservatives with Islamophobia and making it taboo for students to associate themselves with the Right.
Consequently, politically apathetic or moderate students may be more likely to dismiss the ideas of their conservative peers as intolerant or racist and accept default liberal stances. At the end of the day, inviting notorious speakers will only serve to alienate moderates--and even many conservatives--from the College Republicans, leaving only a certain extreme subset behind.
Last year, after a student unaffiliated with us suggested it, the Stanford Review staff similarly debated whether to host infamous alt-right spokesperson Milo Yiannopoulos on campus. Despite the staff’s near-unanimous belief in free speech as a principle, we ultimately voted against inviting Milo. As former editor-in-chief Mackenzie Yaryura wrote: “The Review does not want to preach to an echo chamber of those in agreement, and after an event with Milo, that is the only readership we would have.” Similarly, we must ask whether the Stanford College Republicans’ new direction will contribute at all to Stanford’s intellectual and political environment. With no likely upsides for the students, what other purpose than adding to the trending negative, marginalized view of conservatives will this event serve?
Amy Shen also contributed to this article.