A Tale of Four Panelists

July 11, 2009

[July 16, 2009] UPDATE: Commentary continues to appear both in and out of the biblioblogosphere speculating about the actions that precipitated the cancellation of the "Perspectives on Islam" panel.  On July 14, the Huffington Post ran a story by CAIR-Chicago Executive Director Ahmed Rehab that purports to tell the real behind-the-scenes story. In turn, Jihad Watch blogger Robert Spencer has also posted his version of the sequence of events leading up to the cancellation. Irony #1: The details offered by each to refute the other corroborate the facts offered by American Libraries on July 12 (see below), with two exceptions. Spencer asserts that the three panelists who withdrew their participation within a week of Annual Conference to protest his inclusion had gotten at least a month's notice about his spot on the panel. Rehab asserts that the panelists weren't directly informed about Spencer's inclusion before July 6, and names Ellen Zyroff, the co-chair of EMIERT's Jewish Information Committee (not the "Jewish Librarians" as reported in HuffPo) as having "reportedly lobbied the ALA to invite Spencer arguing that 'their side needed to be represented.'" The truth of the matter seems to be far more mundane—one of standard operating procedure gone awry. According to EMIERT Chair Myra Appel, all four speakers were invited to comprise the panel months ago even though the conference program book erroneously listed only two confirmed speakers (skip to page 109 in the PDF file). Indeed the 2009 Annual Conference Preview bundled with the March 2009 issue of American Libraries did not include any panelists in the program description because none were invited until the spring; ALA's constantly revised conference wiki lists all four. (And yes, Zyroff did invite Spencer to join the panel in the context of presenting diversity of opinion, Appel told American Libraries.) Irony #2: In the spirit of collegiality ALA members take pride in,  Zyroff and Tara Lannen-Stanton, who coauthored an open letter protesting Spencer's scheduled appearance, are planning to develop a bibliography and other collection-development aids about Islam. Irony #3: The EMIERT board will be revisiting its procedures and calendar for developing programs. Appel told American Libraries of the decision July 11, three days before Rehab recommended such an action in his HuffPo essay.

Because of its unwavering commitment to intellectual freedom and inclusion, the American Library Association prides itself on representing diverse viewpoints at its conference programs. That commitment can—and has—caused headaches from time to time for program planners, presenters, and concerned bystanders. This Annual is no exception as evinced by this morning's yesterday's eleventh-hour cancellation of the intriguingly titled "Perspectives on Islam: Beyond the Stereotyping" because three out of four panelists withdrew their participation. What happened? It all depends on who you talk to (like so much else in life), but the essence of the story boils down to this: Some months ago, the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT) began developing a panel discussion that would provide information about Islamic cultures around the world as a guide for collection development. So, speakers were invited, invitations were accepted, and plans moved along through the spring and early summer. As member-leaders do, Appel posted a message to the EMIERT discussion list several weeks before Annual that detailed her group's conference offerings. The email included the names and biographies of the four confirmed speakers: Alia Ammar, Marcia Hermansen, Esmail Koushanpour, and Robert Spencer. And that's when the trouble began. Within a day, Appel told American Libraries, she received an email from an EMIERT member Tara Lannen-Stanton, who took issue with Spencer's inclusion on the panel because of his views about Islam as expressed on the Jihad Watch blog and elsewhere. Ammar, Hermansen, and Koushanpour said they were dismayed to discover so close to conference that the panel was to include Spencer, who is described in some circles as an Islamophobe. After several email exchanges with the concerned ALAer and EMIERT board members, Appel sent the round-table list a reminder about the program, prefaced by a statement hoping members would attend. "I anticipated that individuals would attend with an open mind," Appel said. But, several days before Appel was scheduled to fly to Chicago, Koushanpour withdrew from the panel. At the suggestion of a colleague of Koushanpour, Appel invited Ahmed Rehab, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Chicago office, to join the panel. Instead, CAIR-Chicago issued a press release July 9 calling for ALA to disinvite Spencer, which EMIERT did not do. The next day, Ammar and Hermansen withdrew as well, leaving only Spencer as a confirmed speaker; CAIR-Chicago published statements from the three in a July 11 press release announcing EMIERT's decision to cancel the program altogether. Appel explained, "With the withdrawal of three of the four panelists we cannot provide a fair and equitable forum to explore the diversity of opinions that the panel would have offered." The ultimate irony is the feedback Appel reports receiving from EMIERT members, who emailed their appreciation of programs with such diverse viewpoints.