Grand Forks stakeholders agreed Friday the city must counteract the potential “stain” of hate speech on Grand Forks, but did not settle on a collective course of action, in light of recent visits by an anti-Islam speaker at the Empire Arts Center.
Bret Weber, a City Council member and social work professor at UND, cautioned attendees the city wanted to be wary of “acquiescing” to ideas spread by people like Christian speaker Usama Dakdok, who travels the U.S. preaching about the “dangers of Islam.” Dakdok, who was at the Empire Arts Center Thursday, has called Islam a “disease” and a “cult,” saying it makes victims of Muslims who do not understand their religion.
“Acquiescence can lead to acceptance, and acceptance can lead to an appearance of endorsement,” said Weber, referring to anti-Islam rhetoric, at the beginning of the meeting.
Initially, Weber said the meeting was not open to the media, but later allowed journalists to be present. [Weber asked for recipients to “please feel free to share this message broadly, though not with the press at this time.”]
Weber cautioned against Dakdok being part of the city’s brand. He also underscored the economic implications hatred toward particular people could have on the city, as did others at the meeting, among them university officials, business leaders and social justice advocates.
“The impact of hate economically can be huge,” said Norm Gissel, a social justice advocate.
He pointed to how property values soared after the Idaho compound of the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist, neo-Nazi organization, was razed after the group went bankrupt and closed because of a $6.3 million civil judgment against it.
Gissel and Tony Stewart, who were active in combatting the Aryan Nations in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, spoke at an alternative event at the same time as Dakdok’s Thursday. They also were at Weber’s meeting Friday.
“We had a moral stain on our society for over 20 years,” Gissel said.
Barry Wilfahrt, president of Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, agreed, pointing to a 2010 Gallup poll that found what makes people stay in their city is social offerings, openness and aesthetics.
One of the questions batted about at the meeting was what to ask of the Empire’s board of directors at their meeting next Wednesday. The Empire has hosted Dakdok both times he visited Grand Forks in March and earlier this week, with Empire Director Emily Montgomery saying she and the Empire’s board of directors strongly felt they should not censor someone’s right to free speech, regardless of board members’ personal beliefs.
No representatives of the Empire were at the meeting.
In an email sent to meeting invitees, which was obtained by the Herald Thursday, Weber implied Dakdok’s words may border on harassment and intimidation of Muslims and could prompt violence against Muslims.
Though he did not broach the subject at the meeting, he asked of meeting attendees, “Is the Empire the appropriate venue for future speakers who come to peddle hatred and deception? … Is that a discussion that should be brought to the Empire board next week?”
Cynthia Shabb, executive director of Global Friends Coalition, said she did not want to demand the Empire prohibit speakers like Dakdok. Debbie Storrs, dean of UND’s College of Arts and Sciences, agreed, saying she wanted to emphasize to the board that the Empire and UND are partners.
Stewart suggested there are ways to protect a person like Dakdok’s freedom of speech while also protecting others from harassment and discrimination.
He pointed to Polaski, Tenn., the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, as an example, saying all the businesses and buildings around town square shut down one day while the Klan had its yearly rally, and the Klan never returned.
“If there’s not a person in the audience … there is no play,” Stewart said. [If there were no Muslims in the U.S., there’d be no article, no speech by Dakdok, and no creeping sharia]
Weber threw out a suggestion for the city to throw a huge block party so parking would be unbearable if Dakdok came back to the Empire again.
Stewart argued the spotlight should not be on the Empire, but rather on the community reaction—and proaction—to events like Dakdok’s.
“I don’t think venues are the issue,” said Stewart, urging the various community organizations in town to unite and work toward a common goal of openness and acceptance.
Stewart advised flooding Grand Forks with messages of acceptance and openness, so that purveyors of hate would ultimately “become a very tiny footnote.”
He also stressed the importance of the faith-based community, saying faith leaders are able to highlight the similarities among religions, including among Christianity and Islam.
No one really cares or argues about the similarities. The problem, however, is that Islam commands that the differences are irreconcilable – and commands that Muslims work to convert everyone to Islam, force them to live under sharia, or kill them.
Socialist worker Bret Weber says, “Acquiescence can lead to acceptance, and acceptance can lead to an appearance of endorsement.” And his acquiescence and apparent acceptance of sharia law and violent jihad – the new moral stain – speak volumes. Many area leaders want to enforce sharia blasphemy laws in sneaky ways, but it seems there are at least a few leaders who still believe in free speech.