The existence of extremism on Macalester’s campus

Alex Young Williams, Contributing Writer

On Monday, Sept. 30, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Nuaimi, a minor royal from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) known for advocating environmental sustainability, was slated to speak on Macalester’s campus. The UAE is directly involved in the civil war in Yemen and functions on the labor of migrants with no citizenship rights — a group that constitutes 88 percent of the population. Due to the actions of a small group of protesters, the Sheikh declined the invitation. These protesters called themselves the ‘Anti-UAE Action Committee’ as well as ‘No U.A.E. Kleptocrats on Campus.’ While the organizers still planned a protest despite the Sheikh’s cancellation, it fell through. In the end, no one publicly discussed the important issue of human rights in the Middle East or the effects of United States imperialism in and on the region. That is very unfortunate.

I initially sympathized with the opinions of the protesters, and especially with the idea of holding a rally concurrent with the Sheikh’s speaking event. However, I realized that the protesters’ position was a manifestation of an absolute state of mind, the unchallengeable supremacy of an idea. This is a core principle of any fundamentalist group. I will show this through an article on the topic, published by psychoanalyst Karl Figlio. I further argue that the impatience, cynicism and delusional certainty shared by the group’s members should raise alarm bells for future events at this school.

Before beginning my analysis, I must clarify my exact role with the protesters. My friend, the initial leader of the protest movement, informed me of the event, and I agreed that the speaker shouldn’t be allowed on campus without a protest — but I never had the intention of disrupting the event itself. The protest group invited me to join two separate group chats. The first, more exclusive, chat was for the main organizers to plan the protest, while the second, broader chat was to disseminate that information to various important student figures on campus. I attended two events with the protesters: a planning meeting and a conversation with the organizers of the event. The latter conversation was the only direct interaction between the two groups throughout the process. I grew disillusioned with the motives of the protest group and approached my friend, the instigator of the protest movement, with my concerns. While we talked, someone removed me from the inner group chat. Since then, I have tried to find a framework that explains why I felt so uncomfortable as a member.

Figlio describes an absolutist state of mind as the core theme characterizing extremism and the rationality of fundamentalism. One feature of absolutist groups is their quest for ideological purity with a constant fear of failure that threatens their existence.  Absolutist groups also have a tendency to separate from the impure “Other,” especially the other that emerges from internal divisions. They are obsessed with the idealization of a leader or a concept, which transcends reality. Absolutist movements are also characterized by the “elision of enemies,” the condensing of different groups into one, as well as an overarching suspiciousness.

Figlio also makes a distinction between knowledge and certainty. Knowledge is being informed by the outside world but always thinking critically and absorbing new ideas. Certainty, on the other hand, raises certain information beyond doubt, thereby erasing any possibility of having dialogue and inaugurating a black-and-white dichotomy that views uncertainty, reflectiveness, compromise and toleration negatively. Fundamentalist groups have no room for doubt. They are certain of their own righteous goodness and superiority of opinion. The Sheikh protesters fell into these categories.

Throughout its development, the protest group expressed suspicion regarding the organizers of the event. When the organizers reached out to the group to discuss their differences in a conversation moderated by the Department of Multicultural Life, they bristled at the notion that the administration might co-opt their movement. Afterwards, they ridiculed the organizers for being inflexible. When the organizers sent an email about the Sheikh’s cancellation, inviting collaboration on a future joint event, the protesters categorically refused to collaborate — even suggesting that the organizers lied to disrupt the planned action and meant to set up a private session with the speaker.

Because of their ideological certainty, the protesters could not understand the nuanced actions of others. This led to the same indignant reaction every time the organizers or the administration contradicted them. The group wanted to create their own messages about everything, the only way of keeping the purity of their idea: that under no circumstances should the Sheikh or people like him be allowed on campus. The content of their posters, which showed a caricature of the Sheikh wearing a keffiyeh stylized to appear soaked with blood, showed both an inability to critically reflect and the delusional mentality of the group.

When informed of backlash against the poster by Muslim students who felt uncomfortable with it, the members of the protest group gave no apologies. In fact, the protesters were angry that their message, which they understood perfectly clearly, was being misinterpreted by other Macalester students. This led to more verbal attacks on the organizers within the inner group chat and a hardening of the “us vs them” mentality. For them, the “enemy” is everyone who doesn’t share their point of view or who tries to contradict them. This is emblematic of the fundamentalist characteristic of the ‘elision of enemies’ mentioned above. It is no surprise either that the organization of a rally fell apart. Absolutist groups have a strong tendency to fragment from the inside.

Based on this information, I categorize the group that emerged to oppose the presence of the Sheikh as fundamentalist. This is not to indict an entire cohort of students, but instead is intended to emphasize some tendencies within it. This distinction raises certain questions about their underlying motives as well as the implications for our school. The protesters wanted to prevent the Sheikh from speaking, because, for them, that was the only acceptable outcome. The repercussions of their inflexibility on that position were not all positive. The educational institution is a place to challenge and develop all sorts of opinions and beliefs.

The cancellation of both the event and rally denied that opportunity to members of the Macalester community. The removal of debate leads to the entrenchment and stagnation of ideas, which in turn stifles innovation. We students at Macalester might mostly lean to the left on the political spectrum, but that does not mean we should ignore, demean and write off the opinions of others who don’t capitulate to our demands. Reality is messy and contradictory, and reducing every issue to black and white removes necessary context and the need for critical thinking.

We shouldn’t be held hostage by a small minority of the student body seeking to stifle communication. I supported a protest, but I do not support intimidation, absolutist rhetoric and a refusal to compromise. Moving forward, I want to highlight the values of patience, openness, respect, trust and communication as essential for intellectual and personal advancement. In this increasingly reactionary and globalized world, we must take a step back and critically reflect before making assumptions that erect barriers between us. In this way, we can forge positive intersocietal relationships and begin to make progress fighting the numerous social, racial and economic inequalities in the United States and around the world.