More than 300 people – including both students and non-students – protested an event last night organized by the University’s chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom called “Terrorism: The World’s Greatest Threat.”
Billed as a lecture by three ex-terrorists, the event drew opposition from several student groups and the Michigan office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
A large crowd gathered outside of the Rackham Building an hour before the event’s scheduled 7 p.m. start. Flashes of yellow shirts worn by the protesters showed through the winter coats of many in the crowd.
A half hour before the event, YAF Chair Andrew Boyd shouted “We’re ready!” and the doors to the auditorium opened. The aisles filled immediately with people in yellow shirts, who had gathered early for the event.
As the protesters rushed to fill seats, already-seated YAF members stuck their feet out into the aisles.
After the initial surge, seats continued to fill steadily.
By the time the event began, protesters make up about a quarter of the audience.
Once the auditorium reached capacity, YAF Vice President Ryan Fantuzzi took the microphone.
“I ask those who would like to disrupt this event to leave as soon as possible,” he said. “There are many who support peace and freedom who would like your seat.”
But the protesters didn’t get up.
The first speaker was Kamal Saleem, who said he was recruited by the Palestine Liberation Organization when he was 7 and trained with live weapons to fight Israelis.
A website for the three speakers says Saleem converted to Christianity after being treated by a Christian doctor.
“We should raise our flag, our American flag, and say, Allah bless America,” Saleem said. “Because – after all – if we don’t like her, we should leave her.”
As Saleem finished this remark, much of the crowd roared with applause while others were silent or voiced their disapproval.
“If we don’t like her we should change her,” a woman in the back of the auditorium yelled.
After 15 minutes of Saleem’s speech, the heckling intensified to the point where Saleem stopped speaking and asked the woman to “shut up.”
“Why aren’t the moderate Muslims protesting about the extremists of their faith?” he asked the crowd again prompting loud applause.
After 30 minutes, the protesters in yellow stood up and walked out. There was some jeering from the remaining audience, but the exit went off with little incident.
Roughly a quarter of the seats in the auditorium emptied during the walkout.
After an hour, Fantuzzi took to the stage and issued a warning to the same woman who had continually heckled the speaker. She ignored the warning, and Department of Public Safety officers escorted her from the building.
Sirene Abou-Chakra, one of the organizers of the protest, condemned the woman’s behavior.
Walid Shoebat, the last speaker, drew cheers from the remaining members of the audience with his final remark.
“We will have peace when we love our children more than we love peace,” he said.
After the event, about 30 people lined up to meet the three men.
While the speakers at the root of the controversy were answering questions, the protesters were holding a meeting of their own.
The swarm of protesters, mostly students, made their way to the Michigan League Ballroom to discuss the protest and the goals of the Arab and Muslim community.
“The main purpose of the protest is to really call out the fact that this program is generalizing an entire group of people and saying the actions of a few represent everyone,” Abou-Chakra said in an interview before the event.
Muslim Student Association Vice President Abdul-Rahman El Sayed, who spoke at the protester’s counter event, said he was elated at the success of the walkout.
“We’ve done something good today, and we need to keep that going in the future,” he said.
Some in the audience, however, found the walkout disruptive and ineffective.
“The protesters deprived themselves of a voice,” said LSA junior Jasper Kigar. “They should not have walked out. “
The event’s purpose was to educate the campus community about the dangers of Muslim extremism, not promote intolerance, Boyd said in an interview before the speeches.