By Jono Kinkade
Melanie Phillips knows controversy.
The British journalist, who was voted 2005’s “Most Islamaphobic Media Personality” by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, came to UCSC on Jan. 23 to speak about her book Londonistan: How Britain Created a Terror State From Within.
Speaking at the Merrill Multicultural Center to a diverse mixture of more than 150 students and community members who sat under a ceiling lined with colorful flags of the world, Phillips ironically told the audience that “Multiculturalism must go.”
The speaker, who has published numerous pieces discounting global warming and evolution and advocates for coalition forces to attack Iran in order to “win in Iraq,” drew polarizing reactions from the crowd, where mostly admirers sat up front while most of the students sat in the back. It was not uncommon for people to stand up and leave.
“I believe that lately we’re very deeply in denial over the threat, the nature, and the extent of the threat that radical Islamism poses to the West and to the free world,” Phillips said, describing the situations as “a holy war, a jihad, which has been waged on the Western world for at least the
last 25 years.”
Phillips focused her remarks on the idea of multiculturalism, claiming that “we [in the West] can’t criticize a minority faith without being accused of being a racist or an Islamaphobe.”
Her disdain for multiculturalism was only the beginning of the remarks that continually created stirs among the mostly-quiet students, who occasionally couldn’t help but to grimace, shake their heads, or even snicker from frustration. Before the event, fliers were passed out with quotes and question that framed Phillips’ agenda.
Alexander Jabbari, a junior-transfer community studies major of Iranian-Jewish decent and founding member of the Iranian Student Network, was among the many students who found the speech offensive.
“The majority of terrorists who happened to be Muslims are indeed disenfranchised, poor, marginalized, and that’s what all the analysts that I’ve ever heard, other than her, put forth,” Jabbari said, addressing Phillips’ claims that the problems arriving from Islamic extremism are rooted in religion rather than such things as the occupation of Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict, or general economic inequality.
“[Her argument] struck me as similar to what people like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter or other far right conservative pundits say, but instead of using their more common [language] she puts it into academic jargon,” Jabbari said.
When a question from the audience asked if she thought “500 years of British colonization, including stealing resources and exploitation of the Islamic world, is also worth mentioning,” Phillips said that it was “a point of view, and this question is absurd,” continuing to convey her side of the common debate that she believed. “The exploitation of the Islamic world has got nothing to do with the fact that the Islamic world wishes to Islamize the free world,” she said.
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East brought Phillips to UCSC, as well as the Jewish studies department and the Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee. John Ellis, UCSC professor emeritus of German literature and a fellow British-Jew, introduced Phillips, telling the audience why she was brought to speak here.
“It is important that major points of view be aired on campus,” Ellis said after the speech. “She probably represents a view that isn’t heard much on this campusâ€¦so she can round out the discussion.”
Phillips did attrack a few supportive UCSC students.
“I think Melanie Phillips actually pays attention to her history,” said Aryeh Breakstone, a third-year history and anthropology major.
“Too many people make arguments on either side without really knowing anything,” he said, referring to tense debate between Israel and Palestine. “I think ignorance is one of the biggest problems…nobody really invests the time to figure out what is actually going on.”
But with statements like “Israel â€¦is the litmus test of civilization,” many felt that this wasn’t much of a discussion.
“I don’t think that the speaker had a very open mind to criticism during the question-and-answer period,” said Sefira Fialkoff, a second-year global economics major who helped organize the students to attend the event and challenge Phillips’ viewpoints.
“It seemed a lot of what she tried to convey was fear-driven and reactionary, with a very narrow view on a complex component in our world today,” said Fialkoff, noting that she thought that most of all, “It’s important to realize that there is a great range of opinions [that] deserve open ears and open minds.”