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MIT faces backlash over invited speaker’s anti-Muslim comments

Indian lawmaker Subramanian Swamy, center, speaks to the media outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi on Feb. 2, 2012. (AP Photo)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS) — Indian-American and Muslim groups are pushing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to revoke a speaking invitation given to a prominent Indian politician over his record of anti-Muslim remarks.

This year’s sold-out MIT India Conference, planned for Saturday (Feb. 16) at the MIT Media Lab, will feature a keynote address from Subramanian Swamy, an economist and member of the Indian Parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Swamy has drawn controversy for his long history of inflammatory statements against Muslims, LGBT people, the mentally ill and members of India’s repressed Dalit caste.

In interviews and public comments, Swamy has said that homosexuality is “not normal” and a “genetic flaw” and that bipolar people are violent and unfit to join politics. He has also called Dalit protesters “dogs” and said that hundreds of Indian mosques should be destroyed.

Two weeks ago, nine MIT faculty members launched a petition calling for MIT President Rafael Reif to revoke the university’s invitation. 

“Commitment to diversity and inclusion are fundamental values of MIT and it’s disheartening to see MIT openly endorsing a person who not only engages in divisive hateful rhetoric but openly calls for violence against marginalized groups,” the petition states. “It’s evident that Swamy’s participation in MIT India Conference is not commensurate with the core values of MIT or with broader humanitarian values of inclusion, diversity, and respect for life.”

The campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The petition, which has gained 1,800 signatures so far, has also been endorsed by Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, the North American Indian Muslim Association, Boston-based Indian media company BDC TV, Muslim Peace Coalition USA, the Indian Minorities Advocacy Network and the Indian American Muslim Council, which led a phone campaign to push MIT to drop Swamy.

“He has openly called for the disenfranchisement of Muslims in India, and said they should be second-class citizens,” Syed Ali, vice president of the Indian American Muslim Council, told Religion News Service. “It’s not about free speech. It’s about saving lives in India. His party’s hate rhetoric has incited violence and lynchings of many innocent civilians.”

MIT’s Muslim chaplain, Nada Miqdadi El-Alami, also wrote a letter to Reif asking him to rescind the invitation, saying Swamy’s “presence in the conference will make many groups on campus feel alienated and will question MIT’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

According to emails reviewed by RNS, an MIT faculty member who was helping lead the conference told school administrators that Swamy, who would appear via a video recording, had spoken at events held by other prominent universities, including Princeton University and New York University, in the past few years. The faculty member further said that the conference organizers do not endorse any speaker’s views.

MIT and the MIT India Conference organizers did not respond to RNS’ request for comment.

This is not the first time Swamy has landed in hot water in Cambridge.

Subramanian Swamy. Photo courtesy of MIT

In 2011, he was teaching summer classes at Harvard University, where he had earned his doctorate in economics, when he published an op-ed in an Indian publication calling for Hindu nationalists to stand up against “fanatic Muslims.” The piece recommended destroying mosques, banning Hindus from converting to any other faith and barring non-Hindus from voting until they acknowledge Hindu ancestry. Swamy also suggested Hindu nationalists should be inspired by Jews, who in 10 years were “transformed from lambs walking meekly to the gas chambers to fiery lions.”

More than 400 students at Harvard responded by signing a petition demanding Swamy’s dismissal from the school. After the administration supported Swamy on the basis of free speech, a majority of Harvard’s faculty also voted to stop offering the economics courses he taught, effectively removing him from the teaching roster.

“MIT cannot deny that they know about this,” said Arif Hussain, a Boston political analyst and Harvard alumnus who co-wrote a column about the controversy for MIT’s student newspaper. “The people here are familiar with him. How can you have a person like this on your campus? Hate speech is not free speech, and the Supreme Court has said so.”

The controversy comes just days after MIT drew heat for its decision not to cut its close ties with Saudi Arabia, an association that brought the prestigious school $7.2 million last year, even after condemning the country for its role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other “brutal human rights violations.” MIT also hosted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year despite student-led protests over the Saudi bombardment and blockade of Yemen.

Audrey Truschke, a historian of South Asia based at Rutgers University, suggested that perhaps MIT could not “see the full bite of (Swamy’s) hateful rhetoric” because it was not in an American political context.

But Truschke said MIT should have nonetheless recognized that Swamy was unacceptable. “Imagine (if) a white supremacist suggested removing a few hundred synagogues in America,” Truschke tweeted. “Honestly, it shows a distressing lack of international awareness that MIT has not rescinded this invitation already. I think they owe their students, faculty, and donors an explanation for how it was even issued in the first place.”

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, curates news coverage of Muslim communities in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

81 Comments

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  • MIT needs to post The Great Kibosh of All Religions on its web sites and doors before the visit to welcome in the reality of religion in the 21st century:

    One more time for those eyes who have not seen:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on
    Buddhism.

    A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings
    (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Addeddetails available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups
    calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early
    philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completelydifferent ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • The title of this article is misleading, as the content of the article attests. Subramanian Swamy, the article states, is not only anti-Muslim, he’s also anti-gay, anti-the mentally ill, and anti-members of India’s repressed Dalit caste. Would it not have been more accurate to replace “anti-Muslim” in the title with, say, the words “incendiary comments about various groups” or some such? Words matter.

    Having gotten that off my chest, it occurs to me that, all over the world, groups of people are being divided and pitted against one another for the purpose of enriching the coffers of unscrupulous politicians who take advantage of people’s lower angels. In the Christian tradition we would say this happens at the instigation of the Father of Lies. That being the case, people who call themselves Christian should pay more attention in order to determine who’s making an effort to divide people and who’s making an effort to unite them – if they really believe what they profess to believe. It matters.

  • When the religious and social observations by a person are stinky, the economic observations from the same person will be too. There can’t be a valid reason for MIT needing this guy to appear.

  • The Father of Lies that you allude to is me, Subramanian Swamy and other idolators. The very names “Ananth”, “Sethuraman” and “Subramanian” are the names of some of Satan’s minions.

    Why do you still want to keep a theology that contains the concepts of Satan/Shaitan, false religion, criticism of idolatry, true God/Allah, only God/Allah, conversion, proselytization, and a linear view of history? We can offer you a reading of the Bible that enables you to walk away from these dreadful concepts.

  • ““Commitment to diversity and inclusion are fundamental values of MIT…” so no diversity or inclusion for Subramanian Swamy though – guess being liberal has its limits, eh?

  • Subramanian Swamy is pretty mainstream in Indian politics and the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party).

    By Western standards he and his party would be described as right wing.

    Historically its foreign policy combines aggressive Hindu nationalism with economic protectionism. Antagonism toward Pakistan in BJP’s ideology. The party strongly opposes India’s long standing policy of non-alignment.

  • No problem. But at least let us put your answer in those chapters of social science textbooks that talk about religion. That way, the public will know that the issue is in the theological domain, ie, something that journalists, history professors, and politicians cannot solve.

  • Theologians deal with theology.

    Are you a theologian? Your posts indicate you are not.

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/thewhitehindu/is_widow_burning_sati_part_of_hinduism_criticisms_of_hinduism_series/#comment-1929405516

    Nor is theology in the social sciences that deal with society and the relationships among individuals within a society: anthropology, archaeology, communication studies, economics, history, human geography, jurisprudence, linguistics, political science, psychology, public health, and sociology.

    So, I won’t expound on Hinduism to you, nor would be interested in your expounding on the Bible to me.

  • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion!!!

  • By all means let us not expose our students to differing, if noxious, views, even if those views are currently relevant in politics and society.

    Our college regularly invited speakers from all along the political spectrum. We even had Pope Paul II visit our school and I was there to listen.

    Only listening to one side is like rowing a boat using oars on just one side. You go around in circles.

  • Diversity for people who despise diversity, yeah it’s a reasonable limit.

    One does not have to accept who seek to wipe out others.

  • I agree and appreciate your comments, but I have to ask about “we even had Pope Paul II visit…” First, I assume you mean John Paul II, not the guy who was pope in the 1400s. Was that a hardship to have John Paul speak at your school? I’m not Catholic and have little use for hierarchical churches, but he seemed like a genuinely good man (as people go).

  • There is a well-developed thesis that the social sciences are secularized variants of ideas that originated in theology. Some authors who have written about this are: Carl Schmitt, Lowith and Hans Blumenberg.

  • Dear MIT Students,

    You don’t need this ultra-nut case to bring to light the problems with Islam et. al. A few cases for your enlightenment:

    Islam-

    Again, it all revolves around Islam’s Koran and how its dictates of horror continue to wreak
    havoc around the globe. USA citizens continue to die to keep this horror in
    check. And we spend trillions of dollars in funding of our War on Terror/Islam to
    do the same.

    Islam was founded by a warmongering, misogynist, ex-spice, literate
    trader named Mohammed who started his life of horror by conquering spice trading cities in an
    attempt to control the flow of spices such as frankincense, and myrrh, two
    spices used routinely in those times to mask body and building odors. And today
    we have the stench of Islam covering the globe. Irony?

    He and his scribes eventually converted his crusade into a religion to keep his subjects bound to himself and a
    mythical god, Allah with his mythical angel Gabriel being the earthly connection. The absurdity of it all boggles the mind!!!

    Christianity-

    The Apostles’ Creed 2019: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

    Hinduism-

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_tolerance

    In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.
    -Karl Popper

    Society has a reasonable right of self-preservation that supersedes the principle of tolerance: “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.”

  • Sorry, JP II. It was at the University of South Carolina in 1989. I genuinely liked the man and though I disagreed with him on many points I felt it was important to hear what he had to say.

  • So, MIT should rightfully been intolerant to those who did not want the man because of their intolerance?

  • A person who relies on tolerance to attack the ability of others to speak and repress the rights of others, abuses the privilege and undermines the society which enabled them.

    People who incite pogroms and mob violence are not exercising free speech. They are not entitled to the benefits of a system they attack. Society does not have to tolerate intolerance which threatens its existence.

    Besides, MIT is a private entity, they are not bound by law to permit this person to speak there. (An argument frequently heard by people like yourself concerning speakers and teachers Evangelical Christian colleges).

  • The limits are strained when one viewpoint is literally advocating pogroms as this person does. Just because there are two sides to a given issue doesn’t mean both sides have equal merit.

  • Who’s rights are being repressed by this man teaching at a university?
    I thought “free speech” was for everyone. You are denying him his right to free speech, Tater?
    What mob violence has he incited?
    Ethically, they invited the man, and then were pressured to change their mind,

  • Its a private university, free speech rights have as much to do with it as it would if you were reacting to a speaker or teacher at a religious school who goes “off-dogma”. None really since it is not a government entity.

    I get it, hypocrisy is not something people admit to openly. But lets face it, your level of care for free speech on a private university is very selective and limited by the kind of school. MIT can do what it wants here.

    “What mob violence has he incited?”

    In India, its in the article. He inspired literal pogroms.

    “Ethically, they invited the man, and then were pressured to change their mind,”

    As is their prerogative. A private university has a clear duty to protect its reputation. They should have vetted the person before extending the invitation. But that is more a matter of manners than anything else.

  • His opinions are that certain classes of people in his country should be attacked by law, banished or killed.

    Its more than a difference of opinion. Nobody needs to tolerate it.

  • The concepts I referred to make Christian and Islamic theologians to be perpetually dissatisfied with what can be achieved by means of political compromise.

  • Both sides should always be given the opportunity to speak. Let individuals then decide on the merit of the speaker.
    We don’t need groups to decide what is with merit or not.

  • “What mob violence has he incited?”

    In India, its in the article. He inspired literal pogroms.

    Please point the sentence, for I missed it. Most Indian papers don’t attribute violence to Swamy.

  • ““He has openly called for the disenfranchisement of Muslims in India, and said they should be second-class citizens,” Syed Ali, vice president of the Indian American Muslim Council, told Religion News Service. “It’s not about free speech. It’s about saving lives in India. His party’s hate rhetoric has incited violence and lynchings of many innocent civilians.””

  • My prior comment still stands. Eliminationist views never worthy of merit. Calls for entire classes of people to be declared “non-people”, to call for their discrimination and/or death, are by their nature simply wrong and immoral.

  • It is Syed Ali’s assessment that you are quoting. And Syed Ali himself attributes violence to the party’s hate rhetoric, and not to Swamy as the individual.

    This tallies with what I have observed: Indian papers don’t actually attribute Swamy with acts of violence. Indeed, Swamy is sometimes called to debate with two Muslim leaders known as the Owaisi brothers, who themselves are known for colorful remarks.

    The reason you didn’t notice all this is, that you are deeply burned by the Jewish Holocaust; therefore any possibility of mass murder resonates with you. All good. I can only ask you to consider the following: One, and the same, historian will tell you two things: First, the Jewish Holocaust must be mentioned in history curricula. Second, mass murder or expulsion of Hindus must not be mentioned in history curricula. Will Durant, an American historian, is no longer referenced. Durant is not falsified, just not referenced. Likewise, the 1971 Bangladesh massacre is not in history curricula. Nor is the 1989 Hindu exodus from Kashmir. Why is there this difference? Why do historians have a policy of treating Jewish deaths differently from Hindu deaths? Be that as it may, these are investments we kafirs/infidels did make towards peace. Please train the Aysha Khans and the Audrey Truschkes to recognize this in their journalistic and research writings respectively.

  • MIT could do without that nonsense. They are a private university, they have no obligation to bother.
    If he wants to speak, he can do so in any number of public venues without worry. Places where one is assured of free speech by obligation of law

  • “It is Syed Ali’s assessment that you are quoting. And Syed Ali himself attributes violence to the party’s hate rhetoric, and not to Swamy as the individual.”

    Its a hair that I am not willing to split here. Evidently Harvard shared the same assessment as well as India Today
    https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/12/12/swamy-racism-dismissal/
    https://www.indiatoday.in/india/north/story/harvard-university-subramanian-swamy-summer-courses-148356-2011-12-10
    “For, the right to free speech that democracies guarantee their citizens does not entitle anyone to incite violence and demonise any ethnic group or religious community. This is exactly what Mr Swamy ended up doing through his piece which, in our opinion, should not have been published at all.”

  • Funny how you and the rest of the right wingnuts would never argue for free speech if this was an Evangelical Christian university. You would go straight to “private university, their rules”.

    Also funny that the people who argue about being those banned from internet discussion boards frequent boards where people are banned for not sharing political views.

  • Only sixty years ago, there were panicky demands for embargo of Communists’ speech. Consider this, substituting “capitalists” for “Muslims” and query whether we should go through something like McCarthyism again so soon: ““He has openly called for the disenfranchisement of Muslims in India, and said they should be second-class citizens,” Syed Ali, vice president of the Indian American Muslim Council, told Religion News Service. “It’s not about free speech. It’s about saving lives in India. His party’s hate rhetoric has incited violence and lynchings of many innocent civilians.””

  • I’m glad to see that you are against revolts, Tater
    Hypocrisy is your specialty – granting some “privileges” and others not
    Normally when one invites someone, they follow through,

  • I will always be an anti pogroms / lynch mob kinda person.

    If this was an Evangelical Christian college firing a teacher or turning down a teacher for having views antithetical to the school, you would be supporting keeping them out.

    “Normally when one invites someone, they follow through”

    True, it’s rude. But it’s not the worst thing that can be done.

  • My view is that a private school has no duty to let anyone on if they don’t want them.

    But also that tolerance has reasonable limits. Like everything else in this world.

    It’s also my view that your judgment as to what is moral or immoral is gravely impaired if not completely non existent.

  • Want till we get the next story of s teacher or speaker barred from speaking at an evangelical college.

    What I find is that if conservatives didn’t have double standards, they wouldn’t have any. 🙂

  • But they did want him Tater. They invited him
    You would need to understand morality to make a decision on mine. Thanks Spud

  • File a permit for a public space.

    Private school is private property.

    What are you a commie?

    Demanding private property be appropriated for public use?

  • Why do you hate private property?
    It’s not a public space.

    If the private school doesn’t want a speaker, it doesn’t need a reason. It’s a their property and they have every right to control who occupies it.

  • It may.
    It will pale compared to Berkeley and its riots.
    Until people are willing to listen to those they oppose – things will never change.

  • It always does. When we get those stories, conservatives change their tunes. Suddenly that concern for freedom of speech is not as important as the sanctity of private property.

    Having double standards based on the politics of the subject is what you do. Standards are the thee, never for me.

  • I am not interested in discussing it with you.

    Carl Schmitt is known as the “crown jurist of the Third Reich”.

  • I am not commenting on the applicability of the First Amendment; much less am I calling for abridgment of rights in private property. Your reply is misdirected.

  • Oh – more bad news for you.
    McCabe admits the whole Russia investigation was a sham.
    Confirms soft coup against trump like I told you months ago.
    Apology accepted….

  • LOL! Is that before or after you were visited by Glenda the Good Witch?

    Manafort just got hammered by the Court for violating his plea agreement, deliberately lying to Congress about his meeting with Russian agents.

    42 Indictments and counting say you should cite a source before making such fanciful statements.

  • “Only sixty years ago, there were panicky demands for embargo of Communists’ speech. Consider this, substituting “capitalists” for “Muslims” and query whether we should go through something like McCarthyism again so soon: ”

    Sounds pretty clear you are commenting about the first amendment here. 🙂

  • Who cares about manafort?!
    Russia, Russia, Russia. Amirite?
    Next up, the link between the FBI, the Clinton campaign and the Obama White House is exposed.

  • Obviously he doesn’t to trollish information-free supporters of Trump.

    42+ indictments and counting > nonsense spouted by a person who is generally veracity impaired and loves to change subjects when a topic is way out of their knowledge base.

  • I see that you do not find a moral basis for freedom of speech. Rather, for you, it is all about the First Amendment and enforcement by the state.
    My comment appealed to a morality that you and I do not share. I said your reply is misdirected. Now you know why.

  • So your last post was a lie. You were discussing the first amendment. As I was saying.

    Freedom of speech doesn’t apply to permission to enter private property. The state is not an actor in this situation. A private college and a paid speaker are.

    You are trying to make arguments which not only do not apply, but are ones you would use yourself if this was a Christian college.

    You are asking for tolerance from others that you would never extend.

  • My last post states: “I am not commenting on the applicability of the First Amendment; much less am I calling for abridgment of rights in private property.”
    You arbitrarily call that a lie. Where have I asserted that MIT violated anyone’s rights guaranteed by the First Amendment? Where have I asserted that MIT is subject to legal sanction for violating anyone’s civil rights?
    Educate yourself about McCarthyism. You will learn that people were legally but immorally silenced. It may dawn on you that exclusion from a forum can be just morally wrong.

  • You seem to want it both ways. First to claim there is a 1st Amendment issue, then deny there is a 1st Amendment issue.

    Your analogy is terrible too. With McCarthyism people were being legally silenced. Some were even thrown in prison. The HUAC had legal authority.

    BTW my arguments presented here are the exact ones people such as yourself proffer when the school is an Evangelical Christian college doing the same thing to a speaker or teacher. The difference being that I am honest enough to acknowledge private colleges have every right to control speech on their campus.

  • Important Things concerning the recent infiltrations of the Muslim religion, Mosques and Sharia Law…
    …Documented facts concerning Muslims…Non practicing Muslims are OK…problem is ‘all those that believe in the Muslim religion ‘ must also believe in Sharia Law (there is no separation)…the believers infiltrate with the non believers…and Mosques appear…and there is no reason for Mosques without the Muslim religion which must include Sharia Law (a destructive teaching to any nation)…there is no middle ground…but you will be made to think so…
    …About the history of the Muslim religion…(and why)
    Muslims originated from the 12th tribe of Israel (the desert tribe) …during the days of Abraham…they cursed god because he chose Isaac instead of Ismael as their king…then they departed from the Jewish nation…created a new god, raised up a false prophet…
    much later Muhammad (a real man) (AD 570-632) established Islam as a religion and wrote Sharia Law…The Muslim religion is based on their own changing of historical events from the bible…with no factual truth to back those changes…even claiming that Abraham once went with Ismael to worship the rock of Allah…and claiming that Ismael was chosen as king and not Isaac…this kind of thing that goes on and on…with no proof or documentation… meaning ‘of course’ that the Muslim religion ‘in truth’ is a fabricated Lie…created in revenge against God…beginning from the time of Abraham, Ismael & Isaac…Muslims still practice ‘Black Slavery’ in Saudi Arabia and anywhere else when possible…
    From Biblical Prophecy they (or those representing the Muslim religion) are known in these times as…The sign of the 6th seal…(which is death and destruction) from the book of Revelations…
    For the ultimate, factual outline of the Muslim Religion verses Christianity:
    http://evidenceforchristianity.org/where-and-when-did-isla…/

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