By Dalson Chen
Ryerson’s student union publicly distanced itself from the views of controversial author Irshad Manji when she spoke on campus last Wednesday.
Around 100 people turned out to hear the outspoken 35-year-old gay Muslim activist and television host deliver a lecture entitled “Defending Israel is Defending Diversity.” Controversy surrounds Manji for her criticism of the international Muslim community.
“Israel has a level of cultural diversity that surpasses even Canada,” claimed Manji in her lecture. “I have to wonder: do most of Israel’s detractors value diversity as much?”
Before Manji took the podium, a RyeSAC representative issued an open letter to the audience that said the student union had been misled by the event’s organizers, the Jewish student group Hillel. RyeSAC had previously endorsed the event and had contributed print material.
“RyeSAC has not taken a position in support of the state of Israel,” read the letter, which was signed by RyeSAC Vice President of Finance and Services Mike Verticchio on behalf of President Ken Marciniec.
According to the letter, the original event that Hillel proposed to RyeSAC was entitled “Defending Diversity.” When the event was advertised, the title was changed to include “Defending Israel.”
Verticchio said RyeSAC was concerned that by endorsing an event with the new title, the student union could be seen as favouring a position on the Israeli-Palestinian debate.
“We don’t want to take any sides whatsoever,” he said.
Marciniec chastised Hillel for not being straightforward about the lecture’s perspective. “It was extremely misleading for a student group to ask for sponsorship of an event and conveniently leave out the first part of the title,” he said.
Hillel President Victor Volfson said the title change occurred at the request of Manji herseslf, and that there was no misrepresentation. “RyeSAC may feel that the nature of the event was changed because of the title,” he said. “It definitely was not. Every proposal that was given to RyeSAC…did mention that Irshad will be talking about Israel.”
During the event’s question period, Manji dismissed RyeSAC’s letter as “last minute politicking.” She disputed the student union’s claim of being misled and told RyeSAC members to “put their own importance into perspective.”
One Ryerson student who attended the lecture was incensed by the letter. “I crumpled it up and threw it on the floor,” said Yoav, 23, a first-year RTA student who decline to give his last name. “Why would [RyeSAC] single out this event and not any of the Arab or Muslim student associations’ events? I’m sure the reason was either because of their own political views or pressures from those groups that I just named.”
Marciniec was confused by this accusation. “RyeSAC isn’t any one person,” he said. “Decisions are made through a democratically elected board of directors. To make blanket generalizations about is just doesn’t make sense.”
Security was tight at the event and Manji was accompanied by a squad of personal bodyguards. The event occurred without incident, despite rumours it would be protested by Arab and Muslim student groups.
“I’m super relieved,” said Volfson. “I felt there was going to be more outrage.”
But Ahmed Arshi, president of the Ryerson Muslim Students’ Association, said the rumours were unfounded.
“We totally ignored [the event],” he said. “[Manji] came here hoping for a protest. That’s what she wants. Why should Muslim students make a fuss over someone who doesn’t deserve it?”