Outside Agitators Interrupt Islamophobia Talk at Scripps

A protestor at a Scripps College talk about Islamophobia on Tuesday holds up a sign disparaging the Council on American-Islamic Relations. (Grace Richey • The Student Life)

This week's Tuesday Noon Academy talk at Scripps College, titled "Muslims Not Welcome: The Political Ramifications of Islamophobia," grew unexpectedly tense when 5C students and professors were confronted by protesters associated with We the People Rising, an anti-undocumented-immigration group with far-right views.

Three protesters, who were recording the hour-long presentation with their cell phones, frequently interrupted speaker Hussam Ayloush, accusing him of lying about Islam and the Quran.

Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Los Angeles Chapter, was slated to speak for an hour and then engage in a question-and-answer segment with the audience, but also had to contend with the protesters' shouts. Several other people spoke up throughout the event to voice their agreement with the protesters, who prodded Ayloush about CAIR's stance on suicide bombing and claimed that Islam is a religion of violence.

Campus Security responded to a call from the event as tensions increased. Officers stood around the perimeter of the room and escorted Ayloush out at the conclusion of the presentation as protesters approached him.

“Generally, when our officers arrive they assess the situation and respond accordingly," Director of Campus Safety Stan Skipworth wrote in an email to TSL. “It did not appear that the disturbance placed anyone in physical danger.”

We the People Rising's website describes the organization as a “grassroots, all-volunteer nationwide network seeking to influence – via activism – institutions of political corruption: the federal government – as well as state and municipalities – and the corporations and employers that hire and exploit illegal aliens."

The organization focuses on opposing undocumented immigration and sanctuary cities that shield undocumented immigrants, according to the Claremont Courier, and appeared on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of “nativist extremist” groups for several years. We the People Rising executive director Robin Hvidston declined to comment.

Members of the group have attended 5C events in the past, as well as Claremont City Council meetings and town halls. They were present when Claremont debated issues surrounding undocumented immigration at a January City Council meeting and when state Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) spoke at Pitzer College last October.

Students attending the talk were shocked by the manner in which the protesters expressed their opinions, as well as the protesters' ideas themselves. They recalled that the protesters grew increasingly confrontational as time wore on, and said they experienced the most intimidation and emotion during Q&A segment.

“When the first question happened, that’s when everything changed for me," Sonia De Mello SC '18 said. "The first guy asked, ‘What do you think of suicide bombings?'" and claimed CAIR approved of suicide bombings.

Niyati Narang SC ‘20, a junior fellow at the Scripps Humanities Institute, which hosted the event along with Scripps Presents, had a similar reaction.

“When he asked that question I think I grabbed [my friend], I was just in shock,” Narang said. “I hadn’t put together who these people were. I just thought it was a bunch of people filming, and it wasn’t until that moment when I realized ‘There is a very different point of view sitting here.’”

Besides the content of the comments, students and faculty said the lack of respectful dialogue contributed to their frustration.

“I think [community members] have a right to attend and a right to speak, but the way in which they were engaging was honestly really scary because after the event itself they were walking around and getting right into students’ faces and screaming things," Sarah Sanchez SC '20 said.

A Scripps professor who attended the event wrote in an email to TSL that “it was clear fairly early on when they started to heckle the speaker that they were not there to listen to him or engage his ideas but to use the lecture as a platform for their own political statements.” The professor requested anonymity due to fear of harassment.

“This group wasn’t interested in engaging or protesting the ideas at hand – they wanted to put words in the speaker’s mouth, asked him to address questions meant to paint him as a ‘radical’ and to state that they knew something about ‘true Islam’ that was incriminating,” she said. “They were bullies who relied on their numbers, loud voices, and the expectation that academics would be too respectful and tolerant to throw them out of the room, and if they were thrown out, this would help feed their narrative of exclusion.”

Ayloush said he has not experienced similar protests at his events recently, but has noticed an increasingly hostile climate for Muslim Americans.

“Since the results of the recent election, a lot of bigots have been emboldened, and they think it’s now acceptable to express their hate and ignorance in the public square,” Ayloush said.

Ayloush said he was able to get across his message during his talk, but feels the Q&A was compromised because students weren’t given much of an opportunity to speak.

“One has to wonder, what are they afraid the students are going to learn about Muslims?” Ayloush said.

Ultimately, though, Ayloush felt the experience was valuable for students in attendance.

“The bright side is that this was actually a real-life demonstration of exactly what I was talking about, the growing Islamophobia, the fear-mongering,” Ayloush said. “It was a sad, but good experience for the students to witness, first-hand, the type of intimidation and intellectual terrorism that American Muslims have been facing in recent months.”

5C administrators and student groups were quick to condemn the protesters' actions.

Scripps Dean of Students Charlotte Johnson wrote in an email to students that the protesters' comments were in “direct conflict with our shared values and principles of community," while the Muslim Students Association, a 5C organization, decried the “anti-Muslim, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant comments” in a statement.

After the event, one of the protesters, Arthur Schaper, posted videos of the event on YouTube. Schaper, who has written about his affiliation with We the People Rising on his blog and was one of the more vocal protesters, said he attended the event on his own, but declined to comment further.

Nina Zietlow SC ‘20, who attended the talk, expressed concern about being in the video Schaper posted online.

“We thought that they were recording but we had no idea that they had any intention of posting said recording online. We didn’t know that when it was posted it would be disseminated to a huge number of followers to the person, and he posted it on YouTube … and on Twitter,” Zietlow said. “He didn’t have our consent to post it, he didn’t [indicate] that he would post the video and it was posted with what I took as malicious intent."

This article was updated on Oct. 14 to correct misspellings of Nina Zietlow's name.