UA professor suspended after speech cancellation a scapegoat, author says

He dropped her speech from symposium

FAYETTEVILLE -- A longtime University of Arkansas, Fayetteville professor suspended from administrative duties is "being scapegoated," said Phyllis Chesler, the author whose cancelled Skype presentation led UA to take action against the director of the university's Middle East studies center.

The university on Wednesday suspended Tom Paradise pending an internal review of the decision to cancel Chesler's scheduled talk at an academic symposium last month on honor-based violence.

Chesler, known for remarks critical of Islam, has written that academics wrongly ignore the role of Islam when discussing honor killings and similar violence taking place in Western countries.

"I think that Tom Paradise is being scapegoated for those who bullied, intimidated, terrified, and forced him to dis-invite me," Chesler said in an email. "He did nothing wrong. He actually apologized to me rather profusely and humanely."

Paradise, a geosciences professor who joined UA's faculty in 2000, did not respond to a message left at his office and an email Thursday seeking comment.

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UA spokesman Mark Rushing, in a statement Wednesday, said Paradise canceled Chesler's appearance "without informing leadership." His faculty pay and status are not affected by the suspension, only his pay and responsibilities as director of UA's King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies.

Emails released by the university show communication between Paradise and the center's faculty before the event.

An email dated April 7 to Paradise -- a week before the symposium -- from UA professor Joel Gordon also lists professors Mohja Kohf and Ted Swedenburg as authors.

It states that faculty ask the center to "publicly withdraw its sponsorship from this symposium."

The message states that faculty members earlier had asked the center to "provide, via Skype, a qualified speaker to follow Chesler's remarks," with the request "deemed not feasible."

In expressing concerns with Chesler, faculty cited her writings on "the ultra-right Breitbart forum" and her role as co-author of a pamphlet, The Violent Oppression of Women in Islam, with Robert Spencer, "considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be 'one of America's most prolific and vociferous anti-Muslim propagandists,'" the email stated.

Additional records show Paradise responding to faculty in Middle East studies, sometimes referred to with the acronym MEST.

"Hello MEST faculty and staff, we've been successful in removing Dr. Chesler from the schedule of the upcoming symposium on honor-based violence," Paradise said in an April 9 email sent to 12 people. Records released by UA show a draft from Paradise, not sent to all faculty and staff, that used the phrase "I'm delighted that we've been successful."

Swedenburg, in a Thursday phone interview, disputed the idea that he, Kohf and Gordon worked to get Chesler kicked off the program.

"We did not call for her to be disinvited and how that happened, I don't really know, because none of the three of us were a party to that discussion," Swedenburg said.

Lisa Avalos, a co-organizer for the honor-based violence symposium and an assistant professor of law, said the initial plan was for Chesler to appear in person, with both her and Paradise agreeing to the invitation.

A U.S. Department of Justice report defined honor-based violence as generally "a mechanism to maintain or regain a family's honor by punishing or eliminating girls and women whose actions invite rumors of sexual impropriety or disobedience."

Avalos said others speaking at the symposium were activists or police officers, while Chesler "is a scholar who studies in this area," she said.

Chesler has written honor-based violence articles published in Middle East Quarterly, a publication of the think tank Middle East Forum. The organization's website states it "works to define and promote American interests in the Middle East and protect Western values from Middle Eastern threats."

Avalos said Chesler in March decided against speaking in person, and both Chesler and Avalos said an agreement was reached for a Skype presentation.

"She knew she wasn't going to be paid for Skyping," Avalos said.

But an April 19 letter signed by Susan Bender on letterhead for Bender & Rosenthal LLP, a New York law firm, to Paradise states: "You agreed to pay her the sum of $3,500.00 for this engagement." The letter goes on to state, "please advise when Dr. Chesler can expect to receive the $3,500.00 honorarium."

UA has said Chesler was not paid. Chesler declined to comment Thursday when asked if she is still seeking payment.

"I cannot discuss the honorarium since it is now in a lawyer's hands," Chesler said in an email.

Chesler, in an April 19 email to Paradise, stated that she "would have characterized honor killings as tribal in origin, not as Muslim-specific crimes."

"I would only have held Muslim and Hindu religious leaders accountable for failing to abolish such human sacrifice," Chesler wrote. "This has made me very sad and frightened about the downward spiral or even the death-rattle of the Western Academy."

In an email, Avalos emphasized the other speakers who came to UA to share a "needed dialogue" in the first such conference in Arkansas on honor-based violence. She called the suspension of Paradise "unfortunate."

"Dr. Paradise has worked tirelessly with me all year to plan this conference, and its success was due in large measure to his efforts," Avalos said.

Metro on 05/05/2017

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