Thursday, May 23, 2024

USC cancels Muslim student’s graduation speech over backlash to her criticism of Israel

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LOS ANGELES – A deafening outcry has erupted at the University of Southern California after administrators made the startling decision to cancel a Muslim student’s valedictorian speech, igniting accusations they trampled free speech to appease pro-Israel groups outraged by her social media posts.

The university insists the drastic move was a regrettable but necessary step to prevent “substantial risks” to campus safety at the upcoming commencement ceremonies, which annually draw over 65,000 people to its sprawling Los Angeles grounds. But the muzzling of 22-year-old Asna Tabassum has inflamed an already raging national debate around the boundaries of open discourse on the explosive Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I am shocked. I am profoundly disappointed,” a defiant Tabassum declared after learning her valedictory address was axed. “USC is caving to fear and rewarding hatred.”

The saga burst into public view last week when pro-Israel groups like Trojans for Israel raised furious objections to Tabassum’s selection as the 2024 valedictorian for the university’s graduating class. Her supposed transgression? Posting criticism of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, as well as arguments supporting a “one-state solution” to the conflict rather than a two-state division.

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On Tabassum’s Instagram, which links to a website condemning “Zionism” as “racist” and calling for Israel’s “complete abolishment,” she endorsed creating “a single secular state in which both Arabs and Jews can live together.” This contravened her critics’ “red line” – any rhetoric denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state amounted to antisemitism, they charged.

While the senior biomedical engineering major steadfastly maintains a commitment to “human rights for all people,” pro-Israel groups like Trojans assailed her views as beyond the pale of permissible debate. “Rhetoric that…calls for the destruction of the only Jewish state in the world must be denounced as antisemitic bigotry,” the group declared.

As outrage swelled, USC administrators abruptly intervened. In a campus-wide email this week, Provost Andrew Guzman announced Tabassum had been disinvited from delivering the keynote student speech, citing “substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.” Tensions were simply too high, he explained, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continuing to fuel intense “feelings…fuelled by both social media and the ongoing conflict.”

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The university’s stunning capitulation before the court of public outcry sent shockwaves across USC’s campus and far beyond. To supporters, it represented a cowardly betrayal of the university’s purported principles of open inquiry and vigorous debate. Critics, meanwhile, countered that Tabassum’s rhetoric crossed into the territory of outright incitement undeserving of a prestigious platform like the valedictorian stage.

“By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred,” Tabassum told the BBC in a blistering rebuke, vowing she would never apologize for exercising her free speech rights. The Council on American-Islamic Relations branded USC’s move “cowardly,” dismissing administrators’ “disingenuous concern for security.”

For pro-Israel advocates, however, the decision was a necessary show of moral fortitude. “While we strongly support the right to free expression – including informed criticism of the Israeli government – rhetoric that denies the right of the Jewish people to self-determination crosses the line into antisemitism,” a Trojans for Israel statement proclaimed.

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As the uproar shows no sign of abating, the controversy appears to be spiraling into a microcosm of the larger, seemingly irresolvable clash between defending open discourse and preventing rhetoric seen as fueling hatred, particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s global powder keg.

With graduation just weeks away, both sides remain dug in over what boundaries, if any, should govern campus speech. For critics like Tabassum, USC administrators “abandoned” their obligations by capitulating to a “campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.” For the university itself, the top priority remains averting potential violence or disruption that could mar the celebratory commencement ceremonies.

All eyes are now fixed on how USC will navigate the explosive fray, and whether it can stick the fraught landing without sparking further unrest. The path remains treacherous, reflecting the seemingly unbridgeable societal divides fueled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s intractable tensions and complexities.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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