Free Speech, Hate Speech, Graduation Speech, or Have You Listened to a Muslim Lately?

Spring is the season for graduation ceremonies, where diplomas are distributed and dignitaries share thoughts on going forth into the real world. But these days, some people are really upset by who is speaking to whom about what.

Take, for instance, that cage-rattling provocateur of fake news Milo Yiannopoulos. He’s incensed that Linda Sarsour, a Muslim-American political activist, is addressing City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health graduates. The idea that Sarsour will expose some 100 matriculating young adults to her thoughts has got Yiannopoulos up in arms.

At a CUNY protest rally, Yiannopoulos said, “Linda Sarsour is a Sharia-loving, terrorist-embracing, Jew-hating, ticking time bomb of progressive horror.”

Sigh. Could you make that any more inflammatory, Milo?

Perhaps you’ve heard this adage–“the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” While its exact origins are a bit murky, today’s saying essentially evolved from ancient Rome. For those who appreciate a solid Latin motto (hat tip to Hulu’s recent adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale), here’s the centuries-old wording:

Amicus meus, inimicus inimici mei


“my friend, the enemy of my enemy.”

If you aren’t already familiar with Sarsour, Yiannopoulos’ angry rant could be all the endorsement needed to incite fandom. Others, however, are being incited to violence.

Death Threats for a Graduation Speaker

According to a May 2017 New York Times article, Sarsour has received a flood of violent hate mail regarding her upcoming appearance at CUNY. That’s quite different than staging a peaceful protest, as did some 100 graduates at Notre Dame. When Vice President Mike Pence began his commencement address, they quietly walked out.

Isn’t that how free speech is supposed to work? I can say it, but you don’t have to listen. And nobody kills me in the process.

In that NYT article, Yiannopoulos provided this commentary on his inflammatory comments: “Unlike some of the other speakers, I don’t want Sarsour canceled. I want as many people as possible to hear her odious thoughts. That doesn’t mean I can’t explain why she is dangerous and wrong.”

Now, isn’t this a bit disingenuous? Couldn’t all that verbal saber-rattling breed violence? Isn’t it Yiannopoulous who’s speaking with hate here?

I wonder–does that hate have more to do with Sarsour being a feminist, hijab-wearing Muslim than with whatever specific graduation speech she may deliver?

SXSW Showcases Diversity

March in Austin means South By Southwest, an amazing conference packed with days of speakers and presentations on all sorts of topics. I’m usually covering the sports track (#sxsports), and this year, the panel discussion that blew my mind was “Beyond the Burkini Ban,” one of the SXSW 2017 sport and social justice sessions.

I unabashedly cried while watching the trailer for panelist and collegiate basketball stand-out Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir’s documentary, “Life Without Basketball.”

I’m no pro-caliber athlete, but I know what it is to love a sport, to feel more than yourself and have the world fall away when you play. I can’t imagine having big dreams and talent enough to realize them only to be forced into a heart-rending decision: a religious way of life or the sport that makes your soul sing.

That, in America, Abdul-Qaadir had to choose tore me to shreds.

“It takes strength to walk outside and look different from everybody else…Why does what I wear matter so much?”

~Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir

Shireen Ahmed, sports activist and fellow panelist who also quit playing soccer for religious reasons, pointed out that, while “sports are a bridge vehicle,” devout athletes such as Abdul-Qaadir are being forced into political action.

The International Federation of Basketball (FIBA) had no empirical data that hijabs had caused physical harm on the court, yet the ban was supposedly based on player safety. Rather, Ahmed posited, the ban came from a place of “not just racializaion (the act or process of imbuing a person with a consciousness of race distinctions or of giving a racial character to something or making it serve racist ends) but extreme misogyny.”

I wish I’d been with Adbul-Qaadir when, on May 4, 2017, FIBA announced a rule change: professional basketball players can wear religious head coverings on court. How bittersweet. While her activism surely contributed to that rule change, three years off the court probably means the talented Abdul-Qaadir will never go pro.

Have You Spoken with a Muslim Lately?

On Jan. 31, 2017, I was one of 1,000 or so “protectors” who formed a circle around fellow citizens arriving for Texas Muslim Capitol Day. Since 2003, Muslims across the state have traveled to Austin to interact with lawmakers. Recent hate crimes and rising Islamaphobia made this physical show of support feel imperative. Attendees smiled and cried, speeches were given, and unity prevailed. It was truly a beautiful day.

I’m lucky to have a wide circle of friends who take the “otherness” out of a variety of religions. Exposure and an open mind can resolve misunderstandings, so maybe, just maybe, if more Muslim-Americans spoke at graduations, there’d be less hate.

Learning to set aside inflammatory rhetoric and respectfully debate are important real world skills to stress for today’s graduates. Perhaps listening to new, divergent views would result in some positively mind-blowing experiences. If you don’t like the speech, you can always quietly leave. After all, crowd size speaks volumes about support and acceptance.

And this spring, could we at least agree to spare the threats?


Learn More Here

“A Graduation Speaker Raises Ire Before Taking the Podium” by Eli Rosenberg

“Notre Dame’s Commencement Walkout Wasn’t about Stifling Academic Freedom” by Jemar Tisby

My 2016 SXSW Coverage

My 2015 SXSW Coverage

“FIBA Repeals Hijab Ban, Allowing Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir to Play Basketball” by Noor Suleiman

What is Texas Muslim Capitol Day?

“W. Kwamau Bell: What I learned from Muslims in Small-Town America” (watch his show on CNN, “United Shades of America,” which continues this conversation)


(Visited 83 times, 1 visits today)

Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.