Over the last week I’ve been active in initiating a conversation with the Empire Theater regarding their decision to host the anti-Muslim firebrand Usama Dakdok for the second time this calendar year. To be clear, the Empire did not invite Dakdok to speak, but they agreed to rent the theater to the group who invited him to town.
When Dakdok spoke in the spring, there were some protests and some behind-the-scenes expressions of disappointment at the Empire’s decision to host a speaker who advocated intolerance in our small town. It was all the more disappointing since Grand Forks has a small, new Muslim population and people are working hard to make help manage their transition into our community. Many of us felt that hosting a speaker like Dakdok did little to encourage the kind of acceptance and tolerance that our town needed at this moment in its history, but were heartened when many of those opposed to Dakdok message worked to create alternative events which brought Christians and Muslims together. In fact, Dakdok’s return engagement is “in response” to the events held after his last visit. Considering the success of these events and ongoing efforts to promote tolerance and diversity, we can certainly understand why someone of his predilections could justify a return engagement.
Dakdok’s approach is particularly painful to those of us who study the Late Antique world and religion. He insists on a selective reading of Muslim scripture that portrays Islam in an unfavorable way, and asserts personal authority grounded in his knowledge of Arabic and upbringing in Egypt. Any religious can be made to look bad when subjected to a selective reading of scripture backed by personal authority. Certainly there have been instances of Christianity being subjected to similar attacks. The goal of Dakdok’s lecture is not to understand the history of Islam and their scripture, but, as his website says: “to warn all Americans about the deceptive methods being used by Muslims that lead so many into the cult of Islam.”
Dakdok’s intentionally misleading approach to Islam is hardly the basis for a compassionate and tolerant engagement with another faith.
This letter, however, is not about Usama Dakdok. This letter is directed to the Empire Theater and their decision to provide a venue for Dakdok’s visit twice over the course of the year. In the lead up to his first visit, the Empire and other institutions in our community deflected criticism leveled against them for allowing Dakdok into our town with appeals to freedom of speech.
I’m not a legal scholar or a philosopher, but I am not convinced that hosting a speaker whose goal is to sow intolerance and suspicion is an effective time to appeal to freedom of speech. To my mind, freedom of speech is one of those pesky freedoms that ask us both as individuals and institutions to make compromises for the good of others. As individuals we regularly refrain from confrontation, recognize decorum, and, sometimes, remain silent when exercising our right to speak would do greater harm than good. Moreover, we recognize how positions of authority can lend speaking greater weight and positions of weakness can prevent even the most earnest speaker from being heard. Balancing the authority we grant to those in power against the need for dialogue is vital to preserving practical freedom of speech in any community. This is why we have rules and laws preventing consumer fraud, limiting the public use of profanity, restricting access to adult themed movies and events, and enforcing decorum. Finally, both private and public venues have standards and expectations ranging from noise restrictions to discretionary judgements regarding what is appropriate at a given site. Freedom of speech is always situational.
The Empire Theater is in a uniquely privileged position in downtown Grand Forks. They have a productive and meaningful partnership with the University of North Dakota as host of its art collection and that relationship is proudly advertised on its walls. Associating the venue with the University, even if this is just relationship of convenience, gives the Empire prestige and authority and this extends to speakers in its venue. It may not be Carnegie Hall, but events hosted at the Empire gain legitimacy and prestige from the venue. Moreover, the Empire represents a meaningful anchor of the downtown hosting entertainment, civic events, and celebrations throughout the year. It is very much part of our local civic fabric and has contributed to recent downtown renaissance. The Empire occupies a position of authority through its associations with both the University and the downtown community.
With this position of authority come certain responsibilities. I can perhaps forgive the decision to host Dakdok one time. While Dakdok does not obscure his mission, it may be too much expect an institution like the Empire which hosts hundreds of events a year, to vet every speaker carefully.
To host Dakdok a second time, however, is simply inexcusable. Granting Dakdok the legitimacy of a prestigious venue contributes to his authority and the legitimacy of his message. This is clearly not the intent of the Empire’s board or management, because by authorizing his message, they are authorizing a message that hinders communication between Christians and Muslims in Grand Forks. The Empire must hold itself to a higher standard and recognize that hosting a speaker like Dakdok undermines the efforts of many in Grand Forks to make lives better for the Muslim minority.
In fact, by allowing a speaker into our town bent on depicting a group within our community in a misleading way, the Empire is hindering opportunities for open dialogue between Muslims and Christians. They are not promoting freedom of speech in this situation, but making it more difficult for members of our community to speak freely and honestly. The Empire is helping to silence members of our community by contributing the prestige of their venue to a speaker who misrepresents the message of both Christianity and Islam.
The Empire must recognize its position in the community and use the prestige associated with their venue in a more responsible way. If it cannot do this alone, then those institutions that have partnered with the Empire must encourage and support the Empire as they try to do better or divest themselves of this partnership. It is not acceptable for the name of the University of North Dakota to be associated with a venue in which Dakdok is speaking. It is not acceptable for a venue that serves as a cultural anchor of our downtown and our community to lend its reputation to a speaker like Dakdok.