Jacquelyn Hedrick was still in high school in Raleigh in 2015 when she heard that three Muslim students had been murdered in their University of North Carolina off-campus apartment by a 50-year-old neighbor with white supremacist views who, according to police, decided to impose a death sentence over a disputed parking space. But the story has affected her emotionally — especially after she arrived on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill to study toward a nursing career.
“I will never forget it — it spoke volumes to how dangerous and deadly ignorance can be,” Hedrick told me by phone from North Carolina on Monday night. This spring, she attended the arraignment of the man who later pleaded guilty to murdering Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Deah Shaddy Barakat. “I think about them every day,” said the UNC junior, and it’s also strengthened her desire to learn more about Islam.
Since her first semester — when Hedrick took a course on Iranian prisons, taught by a Christian of Armenian descent who’d lived in Iran— she’s taken a number of classes through the Consortium for Middle East Studies, a joint venture of UNC and nearby Duke University. Now minoring in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies while also learning Arabic, Hedrick has absorbed classes on film and gender politics in the region. She praised the Consortium for “exposing students, and the community-at-large, to narratives that are often overlooked.”
But the North Carolina program wasn’t overlooked by the Trump administration in Washington.
Late last week, the Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education sent shockwaves through the academic world when it threatened to yank $235,000 in federal funding for the UNC-Duke program because, according to an agency letter published in the Federal Register, the program is biased in favor of Islam. It said the program promotes itself to would-be students with "a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East.”
Many saw it as an all-out assault on academic freedom — using the carrot of federal dollars that help sustain such university programs to try to impose a uniform way of thinking, in line with the Trump administration’s aggressively pro-Israel policies.
Henry Reichman, who chairs the committee on academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, called the Trump administration’s threat “a dangerous path” because it could chill academic conversations and research — the kind of debates that will help foster a better and more reality-based U.S. foreign policy.
“Were the government to fund programs based on the interests and political opinions of instructors, or the approach of each course, or the agenda of a symposium, academic freedom would all but disappear,” Reichman said in a statement. “Moreover, there is the threat that universities will be whipsawed each time a new administration interprets the appropriately broad criteria established by law in accordance with its own political viewpoint.”
In many ways, the push reflects our current government — the same cartel where the commander-in-chief frequently calls journalists “the enemies of the people” and “fake news” — and its contempt for 1st Amendment rights. But what also seems troubling is how little attention the move from Trump’s surrogate DeVos received — yet another reminder that just 32 months of a Trumpian drift into autocracy is starting to numb the body politic.
Of course, this week has been a tad unusual. A stunning series of bombshell reports — that a credible whistleblower is trying to get out an urgent report about the president’s seeming malfeasance, that it involves an effort to essentially extort the new Ukrainian government into developing dirt on the Democrats’ 2020 frontrunner in return for the military aid it needs to hold off Russia — has brought a seemingly untouchable Trump rapidly to the brink of impeachment.
Trump’s Ukrainian dealings — even if you go only on what the president and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have blabbed so far — are a stunning betrayal of American values. But it’s also a reminder that (maybe, we’ll see) it’s taken the political equivalent of shooting a man on 5th Avenue in broad daylight to get to the point of dealing with this mess, after the America we thought we knew has been dying a death of a thousand cuts, at a rate of several per day and accelerating.
OK, maybe it’s not technically an impeachable offense when the president — confronted with a climate crisis that’s already disrupting life for millions with killer floods, wildfires and droughts — rolls back fuel-efficiency rules for vehicles mainly (it seems) because he hates California and Barack Obama. But it probably should be. Ditto for his contempt for the lives and work of journalists, as dramatized this week by the tale of an endangered New York Times reporter who had to be hustled out of Egypt by his native Ireland when it was clear that Trump’s diplomats would do nothing to help him.
This week, New York Times opinion editor David Leonhardt laid out a stunning list of 40 misdemeanors, high crimes and just really awful stuff from Trump since he took office in January 2017. You could argue that many of these things are or were impeachable — even if none of them fit the political calculations of Nancy Pelosi and her ilk. In the case of the free-speech assault on North Carolina campuses, the rising authoritarianism comes with a side of hypocrisy.
For several years, we’ve seen conservatives lambaste the modern American college campus as a hotbed of intolerance, because of policies and the occasional protest (or worse) that sometimes shuts down right-wing voices like their own. This is the one (and practically only) place where I occasionally find myself in something close to agreement; I’ve criticized events in Berkeley and Missouri as antithetical to my long-held view that bad speech should be drowned out with good speech, not silenced. But the 1st Amendment exists primarily to keep the government from acting as a kind of thought police to monitor and control what people say — exactly the strings Team Trump is trying to pull in North Carolina.
As an opinion journalist, I find it’s probably safer to step onto a subway track (warning: don’t do that) than into a debate about politics that involves Palestine and Israel. There are many Americans, and not just conservatives, who are uncomfortable or even threatened when that conversation is anything less than a full-throated endorsement of Israel and its politics. (Hedrick is highly supportive of Palestinian rights and is an intern with the group Researching the American Israeli Alliance; she told me her views were not molded by her professors and that “I think we ought to give young people a little more credit.”)
If the last 20 years or so have taught us anything, it’s that Americans would do well to learn more about the history, culture and traditions of the Middle East, and especially Islam. The threats from Trump and DeVos’ DOE aren’t just anti-democratic, but would have the result of creating a new brand of bias that would lead to a new generation of bad policy decisions from the same closed mindset that gave us the disastrous wars in Iraq and now Yemen.
But it’s even worse than that. The fact that the worst full-blown assault on academic freedom in the United States since the Joe McCarthy era is barely a blip on our radar screen should make us slap ourselves across the face and take a hard look at how far we’ve already fallen in little more than two-and-a-half years. While Washington weighs impeachment, it’s important to remember that dealing with one outrageous phone call to the Ukraine is only only one piece of all the work we’re going to need to do just to get back the America we once were, let alone the America we need to be.