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Free Speech's Flip Side

What to call the call for political transformation

By Najeeb Hasan

DR. HATEM BAZIAN, a lecturer at UC-Berkeley and an academic, hardly cuts an imposing figure. Short, with wire-rimmed glasses, a trimmed goatee and neatly cropped black hair, Bazian, 39, looks more the part of an unsuspecting substitute teacher (or perhaps a classical flutist) than the widely influential activist that he is.

Bazian, a Palestinian, has been a central Bay Area figure not only in social justice causes in the Middle East but also in Latin America and South Africa. So when, three weekends ago at an emergency peace protest at the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, Bazian called for a political "intifada" in the United States, there was context for the passionate appeal.

At first, all was quiet; then emails, letters and telephone calls directed to Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl came streaming in, such as this excerpt from John C. Langston from Broken Arrow, Okla.:

"I value free speech as much as any person, but there are limits to what free speech entails. ... I cannot help but be concerned that these comments appear to advocate armed overthrow of the U.S. government by connecting intifada in that region known as Palestine and in Iraq with the absence of such a phenomenon here."

One Berkeley faculty member says thousands of emails similar to Langston's flooded the chancellor's office--in a three-day stretch the week before last, 12,000, 7,000 and 17,000 emails came in. It's apparent, however, that real people are not behind each email; rather, the emails are four basic variants of the same message. Berkeley analyst Sean Ireland tells Biter, "Someone wrote a code that seems to be accessing a phone book directly." Ireland did say, however, that the chancellor's office received about 200 telephone calls about Bazian two weeks ago.

This is perhaps the proper time to mention that "intifada" refers to a "shaking off," if translated from Arabic to English. To Bazian (an Arab), then, calling for an intifada would be analogous to a European or an American calling for a "crusade," or, for that matter, to John Kerry calling for a "regime change." (If one were to argue that intifadas only connote suicide bombings, then, by that logic, one must also believe "regime change," for little Ali and Uncle Abdullah and Aunty Khadija in Iraq, connotes only the murderous effects of "shock and awe"--and Kerry would, of course, have to be branded a vicious militant, not a presidential hopeful.)

Ironically, Bazian, who lectured at Stanford University last Sunday, has as a result of his comment found himself fielding media inquiries from conservative talk radio and big-time TV (he appeared on Fox's O'Reilly Factor just two Mondays ago), all eagerly hoping to interview "the enemy within us" and find out once and for all whether he supports suicide bombings or not. "This is how they silence [antiwar criticism]," Bazian told Biter matter-of-factly. "It was something I said at a rally outside the university, outside work in my free time, and they're trying to get the university to engage in a violation of my rights."

Apparently, in the age of the oh-so-abstract war on terror, patriotism means not only that the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are indefinitely suspended, but also that the ends always justify the means--if you need 50,000 emails sent in a week to "protect" America and its universities against "intifada"-inciting radicals, just pick the names out of a phone book; security, after all, comes first.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the April 28-May 4, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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