Outrage as US university cancels Muslim valedictorian's commencement speech

Asna Tabassum.

A top US university has cancelled its plans for a graduation speech by a meritorious Muslim student after pro-Israel groups criticised her selection and the varsity reportedly received threats by email, phone and letter.

The decision announced on Monday by the University of Southern California is the latest controversy to roil American higher education since Israel's war on Gaza began in October last year.

Asna Tabassum, who has been attacked online for being "anti-Zionist", had been selected as class valedictorian — an honorary role whose holder traditionally gives an address in front of up to 65,000 people.

But on Monday the university's provost, Andrew Guzman, announced the May 10 ceremony would go ahead without the speech. This is the first time the university has banned a valedictorian from speaking.

"Unfortunately, over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor," Guzman said in a statement.

"The intensity of feelings, fuelled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security."

Guzman's statement gave no specifics, but the Los Angeles Times quoted Erroll Southers, the university's associate senior vice president for safety and risk assurance, as saying the institution had received threats by email, phone and letter.

'Campaign of hate meant to silence my voice'

Tabassum was elected valedictorian for having a GPA greater than 3.980, possessing a brilliant knowledge of her academic programme, contributing to both university and community life, and submitting a top-notch reflection essay on her time at USC.

Tabassum studied biomedical engineering and is a student of history who minored in resistance to genocide.

Tabassum criticised the decision, which she said was the result of the university "succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice."

"Although this should have been a time of celebration for my family, friends, professors, and classmates, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all," she said in a statement.

"I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university — my home for four years — has abandoned me," she added.

Asna has garnered support from various communities, with the public expressing strong disapproval of the USC's biased stance.

On X, Jodi Dean, a social media user, commented, "This is outrageous. Solidarity with Asna Tabassum."

A Jewish parent, who pays tuition to USC, expressed outrage over the decision on X: "As a Jewish parent sending tuition dollars to @USC for an Annenberg student, I am offended by this decision. Please immediately re-invite Asna Tabassum to speak as valedictorian. She earned this honor as an excellent scholar and student of genocide, no less. For shame, USC."

Muslim advocacy group CAIR's LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush praised Tabassum for being an accomplished student and said the university "cannot hide its cowardly decision behind a disingenuous concern for 'security.'

"The university can, should and must ensure a safe environment for graduation rather than taking the unprecedented step of cancelling a valedictorian’s speech," he said.

"The dishonest and defamatory attacks on Asna are nothing more than thinly-veiled manifestations of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism, which have been weaponized against college students across the country who speak up for human rights — and for Palestinian humanity," he added.

The Muslim group demanded USC immediately reverse course, restore her speech and treat all students fairly and justly.

Victimised and silenced

The fallout from the Israel's invasion of Gaza has been felt around the world, and is particularly intense on US college campuses, where both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups say they are being victimised and silenced.

On Wednesday, the president of the prestigious Columbia University in New York will become the latest campus leader to face questions from US lawmakers about whether her institution is doing enough to combat anti-Semitism in the student body.

In December, leaders from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT were called to Capitol Hill by a Republican-led House committee. The committee sharply criticized the way these institutions managed pro-Gaza activism on their campuses following the outbreak of Israel's invasion of Gaza.


Source: TRT