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Arts & Culture

Muslims At The Center Of Campus Debate At Wingate

David Boraks
Rania Hamdan (left) and Haneen Muhyeddin raised questions about an anti-Muslim speech on campus.

A speaker critical of Islam ignited a campus debate this spring at Wingate University about free speech and how Muslim students are viewed.

The debate surrounded an April 21 speech by Egyptian-born author Nonie Darwish. She's a Muslim who converted to Christianity after moving to the U.S. And she’s controversial, arguing that Islam’s teachings promote terrorism.

That worried Muslim students, who number only about dozen at Wingate, a school with Baptist roots. Some went to the speech, along with supporters from Charlotte's Islamic community. In a question-and-answer session, one visitor challenged Darwish:

“I just want to make a clarification to my non-Muslim brothers and sisters in the room: We do not want to kill you,” said the speaker, Jibril Hough of Charlotte.  

That brought laughter from Muslim students in the audience.

Kyle Ferrebee

Student organizer Kyle Ferrebee, of the campus group Young Americans for Freedom, responded by declaring the session over.  

“Ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate you all for showing up. I'm sorry we're out of time right now for the question and answers,” he said.

“What kind of freedom of speech is this?” yelled one student.

Haneen Muhyeddin, a Wingate senior from a Palestinian family now living in Charlotte, says Darwish misrepresented her faith.

“She came to campus and was basically claiming that the Quran tells Muslims to kill all non-Muslims. And that's what God commands us to do, and if we're not following it, then we either don't know what's really in our books or we're not real Muslims, basically,” she said.

Even before the speech, Muhyeddin and fellow Muslims were concerned not only about their status on a campus, but also about anti-Muslim rhetoric by politicians like Donald Trump who called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.  

She pushed for a campus event to help fellow students understand Muslims.

But Ferrebee, a junior from Waxhaw, thought there wasn't enough discussion on campus about the dangers of Islamic terrorism.

“I had had a couple of classes where professors wouldn't exactly come right out and advocate for one side, but they were constantly bashing the other side and I didn't quite agree with it,” he said.

So in January he formed a Wingate chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. It's affiliated with the Young Americas Foundation, a conservative group in Washington.  

The foundation recommended Darwish, who has had appearances on other campuses canceled over concerns about her views on Islam.  

Ferrebee obtained $500 in student activity funding and the foundation chipped in $2,500. He also got the event designated as a “Lyceum,” one of about 150 to 200 events annually that bring diverse perspectives to campus. Students are required to attend 40 to graduate.

The Lyceum program also agreed to put in $50 toward a dinner for Darwish.  

A poster advertised the April speech by author Nonie Darwish.

But then YAF began promoting the event, with posters and chalked sidewalk messages about "Islamic tyranny" and "Why Terrorists Hate America and the West."

That alarmed Muslim students. Administrators also were concerned, says Dane Jordan, Wingate's Minister to Students.

"I would've had a problem endorsing any faith component to anything that had kind of a hate language, or that kind of fear mongering," he said. 

Wingate decided it didn’t qualify for Lyceum credit and also canceled the dinner stipend.

In Washington, the Young Americas Foundation blasted Wingate officials, claiming in a blog post that they had pulled funding for the lecture and calling them "cowardly."

Conservative bloggers joined in. Breitbart.com accused the university of "spiking" the lecture and said it was "politically correct lunacy."

But YAF actually was allowed to keep the $500 speaker grant, and Darwish's lecture went forward - just not as a Lyceum.

Wingate is a quiet campus set back from U.S. 74 in Union County. Founded by Baptists in 1896, it cut those ties in 2009. Enrollment is now 3100, up from a couple of thousand 20 years ago.

And it's more diverse. That has brought growing pains, like the debate over Darwish's speech.  To Jordan, that diversity is a good thing:

“I think it's changing the kids from rural North Carolina in a very, very positive way, to help them to see ... 'Oh, I thought this was this, and now I see it's not like that at all,’” he said.

It's also a challenge for students in the minority. Freshman Rania Hamdan, a Palestinian who graduated from Butler High, finds herself educating fellow students about Islam and the Quran.

“There’s no such thing as ... In my opinion, no such thing as a peaceful religion or a hateful religion. There are peaceful and hateful people, and how they interpret their religion is their personal business, you know. We're just trying to spread the message that our book isn't inherently hateful and it doesn't promote terrorism,” Hamdan said.  

There are signs the campus is coming together after last month’s controversial speech. Ferrebee and Muhyeddin didn't know one another before. But they’ve since met  to talk about the controversy.

And Islamic students finally got their event .... a 2-hour "diversity dialogue" on the last day of classes.