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Battleground Sproul

Right-wing agitator David Horowitz sets the bait, a leftist group mobilizes, and the stage is set for a rowdy week on the Cal campus.

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Perhaps more than anyone else in the world, David Horowitz — born ideologue, serial founder of organizations — confirms the old cliché that the extreme left isn't all that far from the extreme right. After all, in his twenties, Horowitz was a self-identified Marxist, a Black Panther ally, and editor of Berkeley leftist magazine Ramparts. Today he's a Los Angeles-based right-wing pundit best known for his rabble-rousing David Horowitz Freedom Center. Three decades ago, he agitated the conservative status quo; today, he gooses the left with equal enthusiasm. Much like local talk-radio propagandist Michael Savage, Horowitz shifted his politics 180 degrees. But his tactics didn't change that much.

In addition to running FrontPage Magazine, his online publication, Horowitz spends his time fomenting his ideologies on university campuses, mainly through Freedom Center satellite groups Students for Academic Freedom and the Individual Rights Foundation. His latest liberal-baiting ploy, Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, runs October 22 to 26 on campuses throughout the nation, including his alma mater UC Berkeley.

The expression "Islamo-fascist" — a rhetorical staple of conservative pundits, Bush Administration operatives, and right-wing talk-radio — is itself highly divisive. Critics charge that it is inaccurate, and that it demeans Islam by improperly associating it with Europe's fascist movements. But Horowitz loves a controversy. The week — ostensibly a demonstration against the oppression of women in Islam — is largely, Horowitz admitted, about challenging leftist codes of "political correctness" that dominate university discourse. "I have to say that the left, which dominates the public square on campuses, is not liberal," he said in a phone interview. "It does not really want to hear all sides of the argument. The left holds teach-ins that are all one-sided. I think the students it hurts the most are left and liberal students, because the conservative kids have other sources."

Horowitz smells a conspiracy on the nation's campuses. "The left has all these political activists pretending to be professors at the universities, who help them," he argued. "A large section of the liberal-arts community are really just political operatives."

The inspiration for Horowitz's latest stunt involved a controversy at New York's Pace University last spring. Michael Abdurakhmanov, who ran the campus chapter of Jewish student group Hillel, tried to organize a campus screening of Obsession, a documentary subtitled "Radical Islam's War Against the West." Although they later backed down, Pace administrators initially tried to bar the screening at the behest of the Muslim Student Association, whose members said the film maligned Islam.

When Horowitz learned of this, he was incensed. Decrying the Muslim Student Association as "a creation of the Muslim brotherhood and Hamas," he proclaimed April 19 "Islamo-Fascist Awareness Day" and vowed to show Obsession on a hundred college campuses. The screenings, he said, actually took place at 96 colleges, 3 high schools, and 2 military bases, and the turnout was strong enough to warrant something bigger.

That something was Islamo-Facism Awareness Week, which Horowitz is bankrolling with private donations. But he's passed off the organizational duties to individual student groups, including the Berkeley College Republicans, who will oversee events at Cal. Planned activities include a keynote speaker yet to be announced, a movie screening, and a noon rally on Sproul Plaza.

Ross Lingenfelder, president of the student GOP group, made no bones about Horowitz's reputation as an agitator. "We're not representing him, we're representing an idea," he said. "I've never spoken with him, so I can't comment on his temperament. But in terms of the events we're presenting, I have complete and full confidence in them."

The planned activities have generated a stir among local activists. Over the past two weeks, the San Francisco chapter of a group called World Can't Wait — Drive Out the Bush Regime! sent out a spate of e-mails calling for resistance to "David Horowitz and his army of college Republicans."

On September 30, the organization held its first meeting at UC Berkeley's Dwinelle Hall in an attempt to counter the conservative rally. Roughly twenty people showed, including four high school students, Cal Students for Justice in Palestine member Yaman Salahi, a few people from San Francisco State University, a couple of UC Davis students, employees of Revolution Books, a few older drifters who didn't appear to have anything to do with the university, and Lingenfelder, who'd been dispatched as a envoy for the College Republicans.

The two-hour meeting yielded no definitive plans. Five facilitators sat in folding chairs up front, including Salahi. "We're trying to get people to start wearing orange, orange being the color that people wear in Guantanamo when they're being tortured," said one World Can't Wait facilitator.

Someone countered that orange won't work because it's also the color of the Israeli settlers and the Bourgeoisie Revolution in Europe. The debate shifted to performance art. Should the protesters make a scene to draw attention? Should they include Bush masks and chains akin to the ones used in a recent "Walk for Life" counter-protest? "The problem with chains is that the Bush administration will counter by pointing out how women are treated under Islamo-facism," someone said. Then again, chains tend to attract television cameras. When a World Can't Wait! Bush impersonator showed up at "Walk for Life" with a line of women chained behind him, everyone landed on Fox News, said one meeting attendee.

Looking clean-cut in his wire-rimmed glasses and polo shirt, Lingenfelder wasn't exactly undercover, but he didn't announce his affiliation either. "I didn't recognize anyone there except Yaman," Lingenfelder said, adding that he was "pleasantly surprised and thankful" that Salahi refrained from ratting him out. "I thought it was courteous of him."

Lingenfelder assured that any trepidation he had coming into the meeting evaporated pretty quickly. "I thought it didn't accomplish much, which is good for us," he said.

Salahi got wind of Horowitz' plans after receiving a forwarded Freedom Center e-mail. The Cal student blamed the unproductive meeting on a lack of campus representation. He said the World Can't Wait activists, whose ties to UC Berkeley are tenuous at best, wanted to come in and impose their own plan of attack. "I didn't think they had the right approach," Salahi said, but added that he thinks their intentions were honorable.

His biggest fear is that the counter-protesters' antics will muddy their message and score a victory for Horowitz. "If the protesters disrupt the events or prevent them from going forward, coverage and commentary would revolve around whether or not the Republicans students' free speech rights were violated," Salahi assured.

Indeed, a free speech debate is precisely what Horowitz wants. "The way the political battle is fought is the way the left fights everything," he said. "The left is gonna claim that we're attacking Muslims. If you disagree with someone on the left, you're a racist, you're a sexist, you're a homophobe, or you're an Islamo-phobe. The left always likes to get you in that pigeonhole."

To Salahi, Horowitz' repeated lip service to academic freedom is simply a way of dissembling his real intentions. "When they talk about 'academic freedom' they're really talking about intimidating academics with anti-imperialist views out of the university," he said. Citing Horowitz' most recent book, The Professors, Salahi concluded that the author is, in fact, doing everything he can to undermine critical thinking on campus: "You really wonder why he's come up with the list of the 101 'most dangerous professors in the United States' if he's so concerned about academic freedom."

Horowitz gets a kick out of this sort of debate, and does everything in his power to perpetuate it. "I know that drives the left crazy — to hear 'academic freedom' and 'David Horowitz' in the same sentence," the former Berkeley leftist said, barely able to suppress a giggle.

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