BY TARIQ KHAN
My name is Tariq Khan. I am a father of three young children, a U.S. Air Force Veteran, and a PhD candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I spend most of my time juggling parenting duties with researching and writing my dissertation, though I can sometimes be found at the local dog park with my two ill-behaved mystery mutts. For the past two years I have also served on the Solidarity Committee of my labor union the Graduate Employees’ Organization, IFT/AFT Local 6300. If you give me even the slightest opening in a conversation, well, I have been known to get up on my high horse to lecture strangers, friends, and acquaintances – at the dog park, the grocery store, with other parents as we drop off/pick up our children from their elementary school – about the importance of labor organizing to counter the neo-liberal attack on education in the United States. But if you’ve been reading far-right-wing propaganda sites, I am a far more interesting character. Indeed, I am the perfect villain; red meat for the right-wing fake-outrage machine: a leftist extremist with a foreign, Muslim-sounding name (Who let me in the country?! Probably Obama!), who uses my position of extraordinary power in the Marxist-controlled university to “assault conservatives,” because I hate free speech and civil discourse.
Short-lived former Trump White House Press Secretary Anthony Scaramucci tweeted about me: “Tariq Khan is also involved with various anarchist and communist organizations…” He accused me of the heinous crimes of being an antifascist (It’s true, I am opposed to fascism, but don’t tell anyone), and “working with the undergraduate socialist students.” Similar tweets about me were posted by other celebrities of the far right such as anti-immigration zealot Lou Dobbs, neo-fascist founder of the violent, self-described “western-chauvinist” Proud Boys gang Gavin McInnes, and unhinged conspiracy peddler Alex Jones of the extremist media organization InfoWars, among others. They all followed the same script, and were all based on the same single source: a factually inaccurate, poorly-written hit-piece that a member of the “alt-right” group Turning Point USA wrote about me. The hit-piece posted a video titled “UofI Instructor Arrested for Assaulting Conservative Students.” The title alone had three factual errors: I am not an instructor, I was not arrested at all, let alone for “assault,” and the students accusing me are not mere conservatives, but are more accurately described as part of the “alt-right” fascist movement. This utter disregard for journalistic integrity is part of TPUSA’s modus operandi. They have exhibited a pattern of spreading misinformation to vilify academics as a tactic to punish, intimidate, and silence voices within academia that they deem too liberal. The reality is, I stood up not as a leftist or an academic, but as a parent, to a bully – a bully with a history of stalking and harassing people –after he threatened my children. Read more about that here.
As a scholar who specializes in the study of political repression in U.S. History, the smear campaign strikes me as nothing short of McCarthyism. The McCarthy Era was a shameful period in U.S. history during which influential and privileged people could, and did, criminalize and destroy their critics’ entire careers simply by accusing them of being communists. Several scholars and more reasonable media outlets have used the term “McCarthyist” to describe the tactics of TPUSA, the group which is behind the infamous Professor Watch List, a hit-list which has led to dozens of academics being bombarded with threats and harassment from the alt-right fascist movement’s army of anonymous internet trolls. In some cases these right-wing campaigns of threats and harassment have reached such a level that it has forced professors into hiding, cancelling speaking engagements, and even resigning.
The most troubling aspect of all of this is the failure of university administrations to protect students, staff, and faculty from these coordinated far-right outrage campaigns. At best university administrations have been unresponsive to these kinds of attacks against members of the academic community. At worst administrators have allowed themselves to be duped into complicity with the attackers. As Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania Professor Wendy Lynne Lee, who was similarly targeted by TPUSA recently wrote: “I’m honestly not sure which has left me the most shaken, the character assassination to which I have been treated by TP/PWL [Turning Point/Professor Watch List], or the failure of my own university administration to take a stand in defense of its faculty – and ultimately its students.” This is what I am finding. A TPUSA member made a veiled threat against my children. TPUSA sparked a campaign of vilification and threats against me. I have been bombarded with racist, Islamophobic threats and harassment from anonymous “alt-right” internet trolls. They have bombarded my department with threatening, harassing messages demanding I be fired, expelled, even killed. I am at least the third person TPUSA targeted this way in the Fall 2017 semester at UIUC campus alone. Rather than checking if my children and I are okay, rather than figuring out how to stop these sadistic bullies from harassing, intimidating, surveilling, stalking, and provoking vulnerable members of the university community, a dean at the Office for Student Conflict Resolution, using a video with a Campus Reform logo on it as his main piece of evidence, charged me, not them, with violating the student code and is sanctioning me with Conduct Probation. I am now in the process of appealing the dean’s outrageous and insulting decision.
I am far from the first academic TPUSA and the far-right outrage machine have targeted, and I am far from the last. TPUSA and other neo-fascists such as Richard Spencer are using a disingenuous notion of “free speech” as a Trojan Horse to turn universities into platforms for far-right propaganda and organizing, and the result is less, not more, academic freedom as professors and grad students water down or even refrain from producing strong critiques and analyses for fear of being targeted. University administrations have been repeatedly duped or intimidated into capitulating. It is high time for university administrators to realize that, as Howard Zinn taught us, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. There is no “both sides” when it comes to fascism. We are not living in “normal” times, if ever such a thing existed. Administrators will have to choose whether they will be complicit with those who seek to intimidate and silence critical intellectuals, or take a stand for substantive academic freedom.
Guest blogger Tariq Khan is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and serves on the Solidarity Committee of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, IFT/AFT Local 6300.
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