Robert Spencer — controversial author, blogger, and staunch believer and proponent that Islam is an inherently violent religion — appeared on campus Tuesday night following an invitation from the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) and outside support from the Young America’s Foundation to speak to the Stanford community.
Despite the outpouring of students opposed to Spencer’s appearance and the large rally comprised of over 400 people that took place a few hundred feet away, the night was, except for two minor altercations, overwhelmingly peaceful.
INSIDE THE EVENT
Spencer spoke for about 45 minutes, and then responded to audience questions for almost an hour. The lecture hall, in the Geology Corner of Stanford’s Main Quad, was filled to its 250-person capacity. Though ostensibly an open event to all Stanford students, a University official estimated that over 45 seats were reserved for SCR members, Robert Spencer’s personal guests, and several university administrators.
There was a large security presence both inside and outside the building. Security personnel would not disclose the number of officers, both from Stanford University Police Department and private contractors Apex Security Group, on hand for the event. The high cost of security, which has been reported to be over $7,000 of which the ASSU appropriated about $4,270, has been a point of contention leading up to the talk.
SCR co-president Justin Hsuan introduced the event, and reminded the audience of Stanford’s policies on free speech. He warned that there would be consequences to disruption.
“Disruption of a university event is not consistent with Stanford’s commitment to freedom of expression,” Hsuan said.
SCR Financial Officer John Rice-Cameron (‘20) introduced Spencer with a glowing account of his credentials. Multiple sources within SCR have confirmed to Stanford Politics that Cameron, who is the son of former US Ambassador and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, spearheaded the event and has been rallying support for it within the organization for months.
Spencer opened the event by addressing the various criticisms of his work and the event itself, which he referred to as a “relentless smear campaign that has been conducted against me and against this event by the Stanford Daily and the Stanford Review,” and he defended his right to respond to those criticisms.
“Most of the things that have been reported about me are entirely false,” Spencer said.
He also stated: “I want to thank especially the most marginalized community at Stanford University, the College Republicans,” to which much of the audience laughed in response.
Spencer started by saying that since Stanford doesn’t believe he has any expertise, he would not offer his own opinions but rather read from Islamic texts:
I’m not actually going to speak tonight. I thought that since there’s been so much impugning of my expertise on these matters I would not make any claim to any expertise at all. Instead I would simply refer to some sources that I think we can all agree are valid and important sources on these all-important issues.
He proceeded to read from a manual of Islamic law, noting that the manual bears the certification of Al-Azhar University, a prestigious Sunni Islam university in Cairo, which asserts that the translation is accurate and the text conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community. Spencer cited a passage that read, “Jihad means to war against non-Muslims.”
Now I must remind you, I did not write this book. This book is certified by Al-Azhar as conforming with the practice and faith of the Sunni community. So in the first place, when people say, ‘Oh it’s terrible and vicious, hateful, wicked, and targeting of innocent Muslims to say that Islam has any connection with violence,’ unfortunately there are Muslims who would disagree with you. Obviously not all Muslims will disagree with you, and obviously many Muslims reject violence, and for that we can all be grateful. But I do not understand why then calling attention to how Jihadis use the texts and teachings of Islam in order to justify violence and to make recruits among peaceful Muslims would be anything that peaceful Muslims would have any trouble with exposing. It would seem to me that they ought to be standing with me in such an effort.
He cited specific chapters and verses in the manual in building his case that Islamic law dictates that its followers wage war upon and suppress non-Muslims.
Spencer drew distinct contrasts between Christianity and Islam throughout the talk, arguing that while Christianity has its own violent history, its core texts do not specifically prescribe warfare to its followers; whereas the Quran, he believes, does.
Arabic music began playing from the back corner of the room about ten minutes into the event, disrupting Spencer’s talk. Spencer was not pleased and accused Stanford University of complicity in the disruption:
It’s interesting to note, in light of the disruption here, that Stanford would not allow screening of the event, and that the Young America’s Foundation wanted to stream the event, but Stanford administrators forbade it. Now why did they do that? If they wanted to expose my hate speech, they could have said, ‘Yeah, film away, we have no problem.’ But they knew that in reality, I don’t deal in any hate speech, I just deal in unwelcome truths. And they knew that what would happen if the event were streamed is that people would see Stanford students behaving rudely and obnoxiously. And they did not want that to be shown on the video. And that’s why there’s no streaming tonight.
Stanford Politics reached out to University Communications for comment on the policy regarding streaming of the event. Lisa Lapin responded Wednesday morning with the following statement:
Live webcasting is permitted a Stanford events, including events sponsored by student organizations. In this case, the College Republicans had full authorization to live webcast their event on any College Republican channels and there was an agreement for them to do so.
Campus policies do not allow outside organizations to live webcast Stanford events on their own channels, whether they are student organization sponsored events or academic department events. We do not know why the College Republicans did not live webcast the event on their channels, as had been agreed upon. Instead, the Young Americas Foundation was promoting a live webcast on their channels, which is a violation of campus police as well as the agreement with the College Republicans. The Young Americas Foundation was using the occasion of the talk for their own promotion and recruitment, which we do not allow as it was a Stanford event, not a YAF event. YAF would have been welcome to link to a live webcast on the College Republican channels.
The music stopped after about a minute.
Spencer then read from the Quran and continued to develop his thesis that Islamic texts promote the oppression of non-Muslims.
The lecture came to an abrupt halt approximately 20 minutes into the event when about 200 audience members stood up and walked out of the venue while playing more Arabic music. Several audience members who remained seated shouted criticisms at the protesters, including one man who called them a “compliant herd” and “good cattle.”
Spencer continued to speak throughout the walk-out, condemning the protesters as the “children and heirs of fascists and Nazis” and blaming the Stanford administration for “filling [the students’]heads with lies.”
Student phone camera footage, provided exclusively to Stanford Politics, captured a brief physical altercation inside the venue, in which a protester on his way out was grabbed by a woman in the audience and dragged down toward the seats before disengaging himself and backing away. Witnesses say that the student was documenting the walkout, and the woman was trying to forcibly take his phone and stop him from filming.
The walkout, which organizers later said was planned weeks in advance, was otherwise peaceful, and disrupted the event for about four minutes.
One of the protesters who walked out told Stanford Politics, “[Spencer] selectively read the most vile passages in the Quran, which was to be expected.”
Event organizer John Rice-Cameron, having been made aware of the plans for the walk-out before the event, described the protesters as “fascists” to a group of students outside.
Following the walkout there were about 50 people remaining in the audience, the majority of whom were SCR members, Spencer’s guests, or members of the press.
Spencer expressed disappointment in the protesters who walked out, saying, “These Stanford lemmings, these people who just left, are behaving in a way that is completely in opposition to what a university ought to be. A university ought to be a place where any and all ideas can be discussed freely….These people cannot and will not engage on the level of ideas. If you are not among the acceptable group, if you do not enunciate the acceptable positions, then there is no recourse, no hearing, no discussion, no debate.”
He added that he hoped Stanford administrators, “unless they are completely given up to fascism,” would allow in those who had not previously been able to enter the event. Spencer subsequently posted on his blog just after midnight Wednesday morning that administrators had refused entry to his supporters.
Over 100 people were denied entry to the event when it began, of which about 60 people remained waiting outside hoping to admitted later. However, security personnel on the scene at the time confirmed to Stanford Politics that it was “a security decision to not allow people to come in [after the walkout].” When pressed for more information, the security personnel would not elaborate. SUPD said it will not comment on any further matters until Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Spencer continued: “They [those who walked out]have not considered the fact that, for example, there have been 30,000 jihad attacks around the world since 9/11. How many people have been killed by Islamophobia since 9/11? Zero. The fact is that there is a massive problem with Islamic jihad, and the idea of Islamophobia is a trumped up propaganda term that is designed to intimidate people into fearing to oppose jihad terror.”
In fact, there have been dozens of Islamophobia-inspired murders and hundreds of documented hate crimes against Muslims post-9/11.
Spencer criticized what he feels is a fabricated narrative that frames “innocent Muslims” as victims of his rhetoric:
Not all Muslims are terrorists; not all Muslims are ever going to be terrorists. I’ve never said anything otherwise. I write about how the terrorists use the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad to justify violence. If that makes you scared, whose side are you on? The terrorists ought to be scared, because their motives and goals are being exposed, and that’s the first step to countering them.
Spencer pointed to the walkout as evidence of a toxic and dangerous culture, arguing that the fear of appearing Islamophobic threatens the United States’ ability to effectively oppose radical Islamic terrorism, domestically and abroad:
The administrators, the faculty, the staff, and the students at Stanford University, who have done so much to demonize me and stigmatize this talk, are actively enabling jihad terror. And are actively creating an environment in which jihad terrorists will operate and people will be afraid to oppose them.
Spencer also repeatedly expressed his wish that Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell would resign immediately in response to their supposed poor handling of his appearance. He later reiterated the point on his blog.
During the Q&A section of the talk, several student members of the audience engaged with Spencer in debate over his characterization of Islam.
Kiran Sridhar (’19) asked Spencer about opposition to terror within the Muslim world, especially in Jordan, and how distinguishing between moderates and radicals might be considered a smart military and diplomatic strategy.
“King Abdullah of Jordan says that he is against the terrorists, and that’s terrific,” Spencer said. “I’m so glad. At the same time, there is extraordinary support for ISIS within Jordan because they read the same Quran. King Abdullah might be very intent on making sure that the US State Department doesn’t say anything about Islam that he doesn’t like, but what is he doing to clear out the ISIS support within Jordan itself?”
Sridhar said he felt Spencer’s response was inadequate, telling Stanford Politics after the event, “I mean like a Jordanian pilot was fucking burned alive by ISIS, so I think there is anger toward more radical Islam.”
OUTSIDE AT THE RALLY
Just hundreds of feet away from the event, outside the Mitchell Earth Sciences building, student groups in opposition to Spencer’s appearance on campus led a rally titled “Stanford Against Spencer: A Rally Against Islamophobia.” The attendance at the rally, estimated at about 400 people, far outnumbered that of the actual speaker event. Those present included students as well as current and former Stanford professors.
The first speaker at the rally, Araceli Garcia (’20), said the counter-event was meant to send “a clear message that we are not going to stand by and let the Muslim community here at Stanford be attacked under the guise of free speech…We have been told not to disturb the hate. We have been told to turn away and allow him to say harmful lies about the peaceful religion that so many people in our community follow. We have been told to protest only in ways that have been approved by those people who oppress us. Free speech comes at a price, they say, but why is it that our communities are the ones that always have to pay that price?”
Speakers from each of the 21 organizing student groups had a chance to share messages of solidarity and protest, mostly on behalf of their specific community group. They variously declared that they support their Muslim peers, that Islamophobia is not welcome at Stanford, and that all students should feel safe on campus. One speaker said, “Robert Spencer and his followers are pseudo-intellectuals looking for ego-boosting,” and another asserted, “If you are neutral in times of justice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Prof. David Palumbo-Liu said in an interview with Stanford Politics: “Robert Spencer takes a very simplistic take on an entire religion, and it doesn’t stand up to any intellectual value. Reading through Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer’s blog, you’ll notice that the main purpose of Spencer’s website is to market his own book and to promote himself.”
And Reverend Geoff Browning, former Presbyterian campus minister for Stanford University and an attendee at the rally, said to Stanford Politics, “I’m back on campus to stand up for unity for the overall Stanford community. We should not allow fear mongering to divide us.”
Linda Hess, recently retired professor of religious studies at Stanford, lives in Berkeley and attended the large protest against the “alt-right” rally that was planned there after Charlottesville in August. Asked to compare the Berkeley and Stanford events, she said, “There were bigger, more diverse crowds in Berkeley, and there was a stronger element of confrontation. Stanford folks are more ‘well-behaved’ — not in a bad way! The atmosphere here at Stanford tonight is one of strength but not hatred. Great student organization, great speakers, and I’m thankful that so many people came out.”
A BRIEF ALTERCATION
An otherwise largely peaceful night was jarred by an altercation outside the venue after the event. Rice-Cameron and fellow SCR member Philip Eykamp (‘20) were approached as they were leaving the building by protesters who had been loitering by the exit, some of whom were wearing bandanas to mask their faces.
In a statement to the Stanford Daily, Eykamp reported that one of the men grabbed and pushed him. Other witnesses, including a Stanford Politics reporter, were uncertain about the physical altercation, but confirmed that there was a verbal confrontation in which the two parties shouted insults at each other about the event. One of the protesters yelled that Spencer was “racist,” while Rice-Cameron and Eykamp reportedly shouted back, calling the protester “a Nazi.” Rice-Cameron called for security intervention immediately, and very quickly personnel rushed to the scene and defused the situation. Those involved were asked to go separate ways, and all appeared unharmed.
Herman Winick, emeritus faculty in Stanford’s department of applied physics, was one of many people loitering outside the lecture hall where Spencer spoke, having been denied entry after the event reached capacity. He engaged with several students who were angrily confronting security officers about Spencer’s visit, and he told Stanford Politics, “It’s a very important principle that people should be able to speak about any topic no matter what their side is and that there should be security protecting against violence.”
Ramin Ahmari (‘18), one student who argued with Winick, was dissatisfied with what he perceived to be a tepid response to Spencer’s appearance on campus.
“It’s a lot of complacency right now,” Ahmari said. “It’s like too little. Berkeley made a fucking statement, and we just walked out? How does that help me as someone who has Muslim parents? How does that help the Muslim students at Stanford? Walking out is better than doing nothing for sure, but why didn’t we shut that speech down? Because his presence is already hurting all of us.”
Another student, who said he’s from a non-Western country but asked not to be named, remarked: “I think both sides are not listening to each other. I think the mentality of the oppressor versus the oppressed is a very Western perspective that is not conducive to understanding issues about Islam.”
And another anonymous student outside the event said, “I’m sort of confused as to why the Stanford College Republicans decided to have him [Spencer]. I understand their motivation to want to have someone come speak about Islam or whatnot, but I feel like they could have invited someone less controversial and better educated.”
In an email statement to Stanford Politics, SCR co-president Justin Hsuan (’20) expressed disappointment in the walkout, which he characterized as an intellectual failure on the part of the protestors to engage with new ideas. He also criticized the protest for preventing other students from hearing the talk.
“On the bright side,” Hsuan said, “I trust that the people who stayed for the entirety of the event were able to learn something new. It gives me hope to have seen students who disagreed with Mr. Spencer ask him intelligent questions and actually listen to his responses. These brave students may be in the minority but they exist nonetheless. More should follow their example.”
Hsuan concluded: “In the end, Mr. Spencer came, delivered his talk largely uninterrupted, and answered questions. Students listened, learned, and were pushed to think more critically about an important issue. By those measures, I consider this event nothing less than a success.”
After everything, Lisa Lapin, vice president for University Communications, told Stanford Politics that she believed much of the local and national media crews came hoping to see a night similar to UC Berkeley’s violent handling of controversial speakers earlier this year. She said she was glad Stanford did not give them that.
“There were minor issues today, but for the most part, this has been peaceful,” Lapin said. “Our students conducted themselves, on all sides, generally pretty well. That’s the kind of student that we have, which makes our jobs a lot easier.”
Nanci Howe, associate dean and director of Stanford Student Activities and Leadership, when asked if she would have liked anything to go differently, said: “I wish there had been more meaningful dialogue between our students, rather than an outside person be the focal point.”
“I think one of the things about being in a college community is,” Howe said, “that different students with different points of view can really sit down and talk in deep, meaningful ways; and it’s not that this didn’t happen, but I think sometimes the rhetoric gets in the way of that. I hope that this will inspire people to engage more with others.”
This story has been updated with a statement from Lisa Lapin on the University’s live-streaming policy as well as with more photos from the rally. It has also been updated to correct the fact that Hess attended (and compared Tuesday’s rally with) the protests at Berkeley in August, not February.
Roxy Bonafont is a freshman campus news reporter for Stanford Politics.
Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna, Maddie McConkey, Monique Ouk, and Amber Yang contributed additional reporting.