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Jihad Watch leader's speech, Muslim support rally coincide in Gettysburg

Written by Dustin B. Levy/Hanover Evening Sun | May 4, 2017 9:55 AM
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Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch and author of books on jihad and Islamic terrorism, listens as an audience member asks a question during his speaking appearance at Gettysburg College Wednesday, May 3, 2017. (Photo: Dan Rainville, The Evening Sun)

(Gettysburg) -- Gettysburg College played host to two events that presented starkly different visions of Islam on Wednesday night.

The impetus was a presentation from Robert Spencer, the director of a blog called Jihad Watch. Spencer's appearance, requested by a student group, sparked controversy on the campus for his beliefs that Islam is more inherently violent than other religions based his readings of religious texts.

Spencer spoke to a filled room in the College Union Building about the dangers of the stigma of Islamophobia and how it can make people afraid to speak out when they are aware of a terrorist threat.

Just across a courtyard, hundreds of students and faculty gathered for a Muslim Solidarity Rally in front of Pennsylvania Hall. The outdoor rally featured music from a band called the Nawaz Brothers, playing songs like "Bailamos" by Enrique Iglesias and Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon."

Attendees sat in chairs or on the grass and some eventually got up to start a jubilant dance party in front of the steps of Penn Hall.

The purpose of the rally was "to show the Muslim members of our community that we support them, that we love them and that we're there for them," said Pearson Cost, a member of the College Democrats at Gettysburg College.
Gettysburg College has invited two speakers with differing political viewpoints on Islam to foster dialogue on campus. Dustin Levy, The Evening Sun

The rally came in response to the university's affirmation of allowing Robert Spencer to speak on campus. Student senate originally approved the $2,000 required to bring Spencer to the college.

Spencer's speaking engagement came with a significant law enforcement presence on Wednesday. The college decided to close his speech to the public because of safety concerns. By comparison, the rally had one or two police officers on hand.

Spencer acknowledged the backlash that predicated his speech, noting a lack of tolerance given to "intellectual diversity." He accused the college's president, Janet Riggs, of pressuring students not to attend.

In Spencer's view, this all plays into stigmatizing those who share his views with labels of "Islamophobia."

"The idea is to make everybody who speaks about the nature and magnitude of the Jihad threat honestly so toxic that other people are afraid to speak out," he said.

Spencer read from the Quran and Sharia law to justify his beliefs. He maintained the quotes he read were what "the vast majority of Muslims believed."

"Did I write that?" he asked. "Did I make that up?"

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Gettysburg College students Siddhima Srivastava, left, and Cathy Adams hold a sign during a Muslim solidarity rally Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch, gave a lecture at the same time in a different venue on the campus. Dan Rainville, The Evening Sun

 

Spencer responded to charges apparently made by Todd Green, a speaker at the college on Sunday night, on several occasions. The school scheduled Green, an associate professor of religious studies at Luther College, to make remarks and give students the choice in listening to opposing voices on the issue.

Spencer sarcastically referred to himself as a "vicious gargoyle" and "hate-filled Islamophobe." He described a "wave of fascism on American campuses," specifically from the left wing.

A college or university "ought to be a place where free inquiry is prized above all," he said.

Green did not think Gettysburg College should have felt obligated to host Spencer in the name of free speech.

"At a time in which you can make the most outrageous claims and insinuations against Muslims, our nation needs academic institutions to raise the bar intellectually and morally when it comes to how we talk about Islam and those who practice it," Green said in an email.

Some of the students attending Spencer's presentation did not share his beliefs, but were merely curious and wanted to listen.

"Everything's very polarized right now, so I think it's important to understand both sides," said Chris MacKenzie.

MacKenzie thought that Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative youth activist organization that requested Spencer come to campus, deserved to have their voices heard.

That didn't mean MacKenzie subscribed to Spencer's outlook on Islam.

"From what I can tell, Robert Spencer's a quack," he said prior to the presentation.

Despite the contentious issue, students supported each other's attendance at the coinciding events.

Cost wore a Clinton-Kaine hoodie adorned with a green ribbon that represented solidarity with Muslims. He said although he didn't love the idea of Spencer coming to campus, he knew it was a "free speech issue."

"(Spencer) has every right to express what he believes," Cost said.

Haley Gluhanich, attending Spencer's speech, similarly did not understand the appeal of the opposing rally, but supported her fellow students' right to hold it.

"As long as they do it in a peaceful way, then that's fine," she said.

This article is part of a partnership between WITF and the Hanover Evening Sun.

Published in Adams County, News

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