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Friday, October 12, 2007

Tutu's invitation to speak a victory for free speech - just

"Tutu's invitation to speak a victory for free speech - just"
By Tristen Taylor
Umzabalazo we Jubilee
Published in the Cape Times, 12th of October 2007

On the 3rd of October 2007, the administration of St. Thomas University in Minnesota, USA refused to allow Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak to students at a Peace Jam International conference. It took an entire week for St. Thomas University to reserve this decision and graciously allow Tutu to speak.

The President of St. Thomas University, Father Dease, originally indicated that it was because of the Arch's allegedly anti-Semitic remarks on Israel. Allowing the Arch to speak would have caused harm, according to Father Dease, to the Jewish Community.

St. Thomas University's decision to ban Tutu was not only hurtful, it was baseless and an act of repression against all Africans. For decades and despite serious illness, the Arch has been a tireless campaigner for Africa's poor and dispossessed and has consistently stood up for moral truths. His efforts to eradicate the scourge of Southern Debt have been an inspiration for Africans across the continent. He is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and a patron of a Holocaust centre in South Africa.

Given the Arch's non-violent commitment to human rights, peace and economic justice, why on earth did St. Thomas declare him persona non grata? On the basis, apparently, of a speech given by the Arch in Boston, USA in 2002. The Arch rightly pointed out that the occupation of Palestine was brutal, against God's teachings, and reminded him of life under Apartheid. He said, "People are scared in this country [the US], to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful - very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake, this is God's world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust."

From this quote, the ultra-right Zionist Organisation of America (ZOA) deducted that the Arch was anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, and considered Israel to be the same as Nazi Germany. The ZOA, in 2002, then called for all academic institutions in America to boycott the Arch. It seems that the private and Catholic St. Thomas University was listening.

Declaring Archbishop Tutu to be anti-Semitic is like stating the world is flat. Steve Miller, the chair of the UK Jewish Social Justice Coalition, said in a recent letter to Father Dease of St. Thomas that, "So, while I appreciate your sensitivity to the Jewish community, I fear that your conclusion on this occasion is misguided. Archbishop Tutu is a fearless campaigner on behalf of the poor and oppressed and we should all be willing to hear his views and to facilitate opportunities for students – tomorrow's leaders - also to hear his views and be inspired by his work."

For a week, Father Dease and St. Thomas University stuck with their position despite screams of protest from across the globe; speakers at St. Thomas are not allowed to cause potential harm to religious communities. Unless, of course, the speaker happens to be a blonde American of a particularly right-wing persuasion.

Ann Coutler was welcomed to St. Thomas two years ago to speak to students. Ms. Coulter, for those who don't know, is the poster girl for conservative America. Two days after the 11th of September 2001, Ms. Coulter wrote a column for the National Review Online. Her subject? How Christian America should relate to Islamic countries. She said, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war."

In the same article, Ms. Coulter compares Muslims living in the USA to Nazi storm troopers; "People who want our country destroyed live here, work for our airlines, and are submitted to the exact same airport shakedown as a lumberman from Idaho. This would be like having the Wehrmacht immigrate to America and work for our airlines during World War II. Except the Wehrmacht was not so bloodthirsty."

So here was the moral compass of Father Dease and the rest of the administrators at St. Thomas: It is NOT okay for an African Nobel Peace Prize laureate and man of the cloth to speak about the plight of the poor, dispossessed and victims of wars. It IS okay to have an anti-Muslim, white American preach death and hatred.

By this rationale, Nelson Mandela would have also not been allowed to speak at St. Thomas. President Mandela, in his 1998 address to the Non-Aligned Movement, said, "We remain gravely concerned about the situation in the Middle East, especially the positions taken by the Netenyahu administration in Israel, which has blocked progress towards a just and peaceful solution, including the formation of a sovereign state of Palestine. The international community, and the United States in particular, has a responsibility to ensure that this matter is addressed expeditiously."

Eugene Terreblanche would have been welcome.

This banning of Archbishop Tutu is an example of the war against progressive voices within the North. This is contrary to the South's interests. While the global South has paid in current dollars a cumulative total of $7.673 trillion in external debt service since 1979, its debt has increased from $618 billion in 1980 to $3.150 trillion in 2006. Africa's repayments to the North during this time were $675 billion. Half of this amount would have eradicated hunger on the continent.

Desmond Tutu has been an outspoken advocate for debt cancellation and the redirection of debt repayments to social services. When universities like St. Thomas reject individuals like the Arch, they close down debate on issues like debt and the economic subjugation of our continent. They are not silencing Desmond Tutu, they are silencing the collective howl of all Africans.

On Wednesday, the administration of St. Thomas finally received the notice that Inquisition ended in 1834 and declared that Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be invited to join in a dialogue at the University. This represents a victory for freedom of speech. However, the really terrible part of the whole sordid affair was that such an insulting, irrational and anti-democratic decision to ban could have been made in the first place.

*Umzabalazo we Jubilee is an activist, grassroots based, not for profit organization struggling for the total cancellation of Third World Debt, the payment of reparations, the abolishment of neoliberal economic systems, and the social transformation of South African society.



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