University Islamic Society accused of hypocrisy

Jen Mills  News Editor 11 February 2010

Tensions between Jewish and Islamic societies in Cambridge have flared this week over the decision by the Islamic Society (ISoc) to allow Palestinian activist Dr Azzam Tamimi to speak last Monday, after concerns about his views were raised by students. This comes less than two weeks after the Israel Society cancelled the appearance of speaker Benny Morris “for fear of being portrayed as a mouthpiece of Islamophobia,” after criticism from the Islamic Society.

Jake Witzenfield, President of the Israel Society, who made the decision to cancel Benny Morris’s speech, said: “Last week CU Islamic Society undersigned a letter to oppose what they felt was “offensive” “bigotry” against Muslim students on campus and we respected their sensitivities. This week they hosted Azzam Tamimi, a grossly offensive bigot for Jews, Israelis, homosexuals and women. This unsettling spirit of double standards urgently needs to be replaced with mutual respect and transparency.”

Dr Tamimi, who regularly appears on Al Jazeera and contributes to The Guardian, has provoked controversy in the past with comments which appear to advocate suicide bombing. He told the BBC in 2004 that sacrificing himself for Palestine would be “a noble cause”, saying “I would do it if I had the opportunity.” His speech was organised by the Islamic Society’s autonomous Human Rights Committee and was titled ‘A Year After the Gaza War has Much Changed?’

Before the speech took place, Cambridge University Jewish Society (CUJS) also voiced concerns, citing “the upset Azzam Tamimi would cause to Jewish and other students”. Speaking to The Cambridge Student (TCS) CUJS co-President Alex Cohen said:  “The Jewish Society did not want to dictate whether or not this event should go ahead but it saddens us that the Islamic Society did not respect our concerns.”

A member of CUJS attended the speech, and handed out leaflets in a personal capacity which criticised Dr Tamimi’s allegedly negative attitudes towards homosexuals, women and Jews.

However, Islamic Society Vice-President Mohamed Abdalla justified the decision to allow Dr Tamimi to speak, saying that ISoc “took into consideration the concerns that the CU Jewish Society had ahead of the talk”. He said that the allegations against Dr Tamimi were investigated fully and felt to be “unfounded or taken out of context or both.”

Mirina Paananen, President of the Islamic Society also insisted that “whilst Benny Morris does hold clearly racist and anti-Islamic views, the CU Islamic Society never called for the cancellation of his talk. There was merely a display of discontent and a call to discredit his views”.

The Israel Society has called for an open meeting between all involved, “to reach a much needed understanding of mutual respect, face-to-face, to ensure that these obstacles don’t present themselves again.” The president stressed that the Israel Society was still committed to Israel-Palestine Awareness Week.

Reaction to Dr Tamimi’s speech was mixed. One audience member offered praise, saying: “You’ve been fearless in putting forward your views – well done.” 

The CUJS said, however, that “the talk confirmed many of our worst fears. Although it was advertised as an exploration of the past year, the sole aim of the talk seemed to be a basic denial of Israel’s right to exist using some rather spurious ‘historical’ references.”

“We were disappointed that at no point did any representative of the Islamic Society publicly distance themselves from these and other statements, instead choosing to focus on the fact that they were ‘passionate’.”

In his speech, Dr Tamimi maintained his view that “Palestinians have every right to struggle”, describing it as a community under siege, “collectively driven to desperation”. He confirmed that he is a supporter of Hamas.

When challenged directly about the comments he has made in the past, however, he responded that he did not advocate suicide bombing and claimed “this whole business of suicide bombing is used as a witch hunt to stop people appearing in public”.

He then retorted: “Why the bastard Israeli pilots continue to bomb – this is a legitimate question.” At one point he said “I have everything against anyone supporting Israel. I don’t like them – I hate them”, although he stressed that he was anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic. He concluded by saying “We will have to continue our fight, and if we die, our children will take up the banner after us.”

Dr Tamimi told TCS that Jewish student societies across the UK “seem to have a standard policy of attempting to prevent my appearance in any UK university.” He criticised such attempts, labelling them an attempt to suppress free speech. He said, “I’m of the opinion that no one, irrespective of his views, should be barred from speaking to university students. At such an age students are capable of discerning truth from falsehood and should be entitled to make up their mind about what they hear.” He went on to claim: “The Israelis and their supporters are opposed to the freedom of speech because their arguments are easily defeated as the facts of history are on the side of their victims, the Palestinians.”

Jen Mills  News Editor