Speaker Dr. Daniel Pipes uses authority, charisma, energy to spread fear of Islam

Sitting through Dr. Daniel Pipes’ talk last week in Foellinger Auditorium, it was hard not to be impressed by his erudition and his commanding presentation. Dr. Pipes clearly knows his material and he knows how to hold an audience’s attention.

But after the talk my husband commented: “He didn’t actually say anything.” And he was right. For almost an hour Dr. Pipes kept us captivated by a talk empty of substantive content but full of one main, powerful component: fear. The event was consumed by a fear of radical Islam, as though nothing else existed.

I will not try to refute Dr. Pipes’ theories. I am not a scholar of Islam. Moreover, I am well aware that the foundation on which Dr. Pipes builds his argument is true; there are some radical Islamic groups that are extremely dangerous and destructive. Is there something to be afraid of in radical Islam? Certainly. Should we be consumed by that fear? Certainly not.

During the talk I tried an exercise: every time Pipes said “radical Islam” I substituted “Zionism” in my head, and suddenly the talk became horribly familiar. Learned and hate-filled anti-Zionism is something I’ve often come across and is, for me personally, particularly unsettling. If — as a Zionist and an Israeli — I had been sitting through that version of the talk, I would have been horrified. And so I wondered how a young Muslim student sitting in Pipes’ talk would have felt. Like Islam, there is much about Zionism that can and should be criticized. But there is a line between scholarly criticism and McCarthy-like fear-mongering. Dr. Pipes crossed that line.

I urge the students who were there to think critically of the information that was handed to them by Pipes with such authority. Even in the Middle-East (one of the most volatile regions on the earth) there is room for moderation. There is room to think about these issues in a more complex light, one that does not erase historical context or opposing viewpoints, one that is not overcome with fear. It’s almost comical that the words that kept going through my head after Pipes’ talk were: “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” For those in the audience who were distressed by what they heard last week I offer this alternative: Be aware. Be challenging and be critical. Be thoughtful and thought-provoking. But be consumed by fear? Absolutely not.

Dr. Rhona Seidelman ,

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor,

scholar of Israeli history