Weekly Feature

2010-04-14 / Editorials

Speaker controversy a complicated issue

Bee Editorial
A January speaker in Clarence High School’s global studies classes is controversial to some. Noa Bursie, whose 14-year-old son was present for a presentation by Hassan Shibly on the topic of Islam, attended Monday’s Board of Education meeting to express her concerns. According to Bursie, her son reported statements made by Shibly during the presentation, to the effect of “the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks were not Muslims, but atheists,” and “Sept. 11 happened because of America’s blind support for Israel.”

No audio or video records were made of Shibly’s talk, but teachers present did not think inflammatory statements were made, according to Principal Kenneth Smith. In correspondence with The Clarence Bee, Shibly also denied that he made such comments.

Bursie presented information available online from Shibly’s Facebook and MySpace profiles and other locations that she believes show he was an inappropriate choice as a high school speaker.

In response to her concerns, the district has made changes to its guest speaker policy, requiring 30 days notice for controversial speakers, archiving future presentations by audio and/or video and perhaps considering a panel discussion of religion, rather than hosting one religious representative at a time. These changes are sensible and are likely to enhance the district’s ability to successfully vet those who impart their knowledge and opinions to students.

We have reviewed much of the online information referenced by Bursie, and while it’s hard to say whether Shibly should have been invited to speak, it’s unclear that he holds the controversial opinions attributed to him by some.

Several of his comments seem to have been taken out of context or misinterpreted. He denies saying such things as “Sept. 11 happened because of America’s blind support for Israel,” and it’s difficult to know which of his hearers is accurately remembering what he discussed — Shibly and the teachers who invited his participation, or Bursie’s 14-year-old son. She has described her son as without the political savvy and sophistication to invent these quotes. If that is true, isn’t it possible that he also lacks an in-depth understanding of the issues being discussed and might have missed important nuances of the presentation? There is a significant difference between stating that “blind support of Israel” caused the Sept. 11 attacks and noting that the terrorists may have had political grievances that motivated their actions.

Whatever the case, we hope those involved strive to be understanding of each other, rather than simply dismissing those whose viewpoints differ from their own.

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