Last Wednesday morning, the Muslim Students Association emailed much of the Yale student body with a letter condemning the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program’s invitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak on the topic of “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West.” Among the supposed signatories to that letter were the Slifka Center, Yale Friends of Israel, the Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative, Survivor’s Inbox, Jews and Muslims at Yale and J-Street U. But none of these groups, according to an MSA email sent on Saturday, had consented to sign on before the letter was issued. The last two later decided to sign on to the letter.
Regardless of the ultimate position of Yale Friends of Israel, of which I am a co-president, and other organizations, the unprofessional process of this letter’s creation calls into question the validity of every single signature and calls into further question the integrity of both the letter’s sentiments and its authors. It is unfortunate that a letter whose content concerns itself with free speech and issues directly relating to women marginalized some of the very organizations concerned with these topics.
Creation of and advocacy for the letter was led by the Religious Activities Chair of the MSA. Based on the experience of the Yale Friends of Israel and several other organizations that I have spoken with, the chair contacted many organizations looking for signatories. At some point in the process, however, several organizations were added as signatories after merely expressing a willingness to discuss the letter; they never gave permission for their names to be used. This false list was then used to solicit the support of other organizations. Whether the tactics used were simply severe negligence or malicious fraud, the Yale community should be concerned.
The MSA finally attempted to rectify its mistakes with a letter sent out Saturday afternoon — though, unlike the first, it was not sent to the community at large. During the intervening time, organizations that were signed on questionably had to decide whether to risk alienating themselves or let the error stand. Amazingly, several organizations took the path of least resistance. In the face of having their own reputation taken from them, they quietly accepted this outright assault on their autonomy, reputation and institutional integrity in order to maintain relations with the MSA. This impressive show of restraint by organizations was incredible to witness but ultimately misguided. Yale is a place where dialogue can succeed, but only if we make clear that this sort of behavior is unacceptable.
The public will never be able to truly know how much of the supposed support for the letter was real and how much has been obscured by the inappropriate conduct of the MSA. But what we do know is that this conduct is wrong and unbecoming of any organization at Yale. Such conduct divides communities and generates unnecessary tension.
Although Yale Friends of Israel has taken no official position on the letter or Ms. Hirsi Ali’s talk, I want to close with my opinion on the matter — the opinion that I hope is shared by the majority of my classmates.
I stand for the absolute protection of freedom of speech and actively encourage the free and open exchange of ideas. I do not believe any nonviolent speech should be silenced nor any opinion shouted down. True to Yale’s greatest traditions, in a campus such as ours, full of great minds and thinkers ready to actively engage, the answer can never be to silence speech one disagrees with. I applaud the Buckley Program for its effort to promote intellectual diversity at Yale and welcome the constructive dialogue that the speaker can inspire if we are all willing to listen and participate. I hope participation in such a constructive dialogue includes the Muslim Students Association and that all voices can be heard. But this can only happen if we are open and honest with each other.
Sam Sussman is a junior in Davenport College, a co-president of the Yale Friends of Israel and a William F. Buckley, Jr. Program Fellow. This reflects the opinion of the author and not any organizations he is affiliated with. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.