UNC-Chapel Hill’s defense of controversial 9/11 course doesn’t hold up

By Jay Schalin

Chapel Hill, NC – At the start of the fall semester, a freshman student at UNC-Chapel Hill gave the syllabus for ENG 72: Literature of 9/11 a cursory look and, perceiving an anti-American bias, brought it to the attention of the College Fix, a conservative website. It then received a considerable amount of national attention, primarily in the conservative press.

World Trade CenterUNC-Chapel Hill responded as it has in other recent controversies: with damage control, wagon-circling, and finger-pointing at critics (including an 18-year-old freshman). It immediately came out with a “Fact Sheet” that defended the course and purported to correct misinformation in the student’s report and subsequent conservative commentary. The fact sheet relied heavily on a very shaky “analysis” performed by a left-wing attack tank, Media Matters.

That piece of propaganda was followed by another—a Raleigh News & Observer op-ed penned by none other than the course’s creator and teacher, Neel Ahuja. He went so far as to allude to the possibility that criticism of his 9/11 course is part of an orchestrated political agenda by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy “to advance a program of tax cuts being pushed by North Carolina’s state legislature.”

That is sheer nonsense and irrational conspiracy-mongering. Apparently, Ahuja appears to be so blinded by his allegiance to the left-wing academic establishment that he cannot grasp that UNC, as a public institution, is fertile ground for criticism on many fronts. And that such criticism may arise independently from different sources.

But getting past all the political posturing and accusations, the questions about English 72 remain. Is the course indeed biased? One cannot take the teacher’s word—he will of course say “no.” Furthermore, even if biased, is Ahuja’s course, protected by his right to academic freedom in a university setting? Should the UNC Board of Trustees take any action in regard to this course?

At the request of a UNC-Chapel Hill trustee, the Pope Center analyzed the course and Chapel Hill’s defense to find answers to those questions. After investigating almost all of the readily accessible writing selections, our findings include:

  • The content of the course is-one sided. Just two of the readings are pro-American, three are merely factual, eight are vague with no clear viewpoint, and 19 are explicitly anti-American.
  • Based on Ahuja’s research interests and the course content he chose, it is hard to imagine the course dialogue taking a highly balanced approach. Of course, it is impossible to know without attending the course. Few student evaluations exist, but give some evidence that Ahuja’s teaching is biased.
  • In a public university, it is the board that has the final say and holds the academic freedom rights that belong to the university. The board is within its rights to challenge Ahuja’s course.
  • The course should no longer be eligible for General Education credit. Nor should it be targeted to university freshmen. Moreover, it should be redesigned and taught in the Peace, War, and Defense Department rather than the English Department.

Additionally, we found large errors or sections of empty rhetoric in UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Fact Sheet” defense. For instance, anecdotal claims by students that the course is balanced are largely irrelevant, as are “facts” that the course is not required, that the course is five years old, that the course is popular, and that the professor faced the wrath of the public after the course was exposed.

The only things that are relevant for determining the course’s bias are the course content and the way the course is taught. All courses should achieve a reasonable standard of quality and objectivity, no matter whether they are required, new, or popular.

Media Matters’s supposed “investigation” of the course content was either superficial, disingenuous, or they did not comprehend the writings. I took the time to read all of the smaller works listed on the syllabus that were easily accessible and I discovered that examples chosen by Media Matters to show that the critics’ of the course failed to perform due diligence are actually evidence in the critics’ favor.

One such example is a poem by Suheir Hammad, “First Writing Since.” It was described in the “Fact Sheet” as being “about her brother in the U.S. military and her experience narrowly avoiding the World Trade Center on 9/11.” Instead, its main thesis was an indictment of America and Americans, liberally sprinkled with lines such as: “lets !! not forget u.s. transgressions,” “do not support America’s bullying,” “when we talk about holy books and hooded men and death, why do we never mention the kkk?”

Many of the other short works that focused on the victims mentioned by Media Matters and UNC-Chapel Hill as evidence of the course’s inclusion of multiple views, such as a photographic album of 9/11 memorials, a Dom DeLillo prose piece, discussion of the Falling Man photograph, and the Windows of the World poem, do not necessarily indicate a balanced perspective. While expressing sorrow for the victims, they say nothing about how these people came to be victims. That it was Islamic terrorists who killed and maimed them is kept in the background; in many writings, the victims could just as easily been victims of a natural disaster or an exploding gas line.

Much was said about the victims—but almost nothing about the perpetrators.  Rather than offering understanding about an event with clear-cut villains, as a whole the course’s “victim” writings instill a vague sympathy for victims in general but little about the central events and issues of 9/11.

More than a few of the authors chosen for the course were already known to me:

  • One is Judith Butler, a well-known postmodernist and feminist theorist. In her lengthy essay, “Violence, Mourning, and Politics,” she mixes in radical feminist and gender theory with a discussion of various instances of violence—most of it blamed on the United States. She suggests that “grieving” is a better answer to violence, such as that which occurred on 9/11, than taking action. Also, while denying that she blames the United States for 9/11, she said sees the terrorist acts on that day as a reason to reconsider “United States hubris and the importance of establishing more radically egalitarian ties.”
  • A full class was reserved for reading selections from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The book’s inclusion in the course is likely intended to establish an underlying political framework for discussion of 9/11 based on Zinn’s thesis that the American government has been from the start racist, oppressive, warmongering, and ruthlessly exploitative, and that it must be subverted.

I have not have time to read the larger works that were unfamiliar to me. However, I did watch the movie The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Discussion of the novel upon which the movie is based upon takes up a full five class sessions. It depicts the fictional transformation of a young Pakistani immigrant eagerly pursuing the American dream—Princeton education, Wall Street corporate raiding job, trophy girlfriend, love for this country’s egalitarian sense of fair play—into an Islamic fundamentalist who preaches against America and, while not explicitly joining with violent terrorists, is something of a fellow traveler with the anti-Western movement in Pakistan. The impetus for this transformation is his mistreatment by U.S. government officials and ordinary citizens alike: “I had seen first hand the arrogant America … the blindness, the hypocrisy, the xenophobia.”

Ahuja’s defense of that novel and other writings was that, while they “are easy to caricature as representing the viewpoints of terrorists,” they are “not so one-dimensional.” That may be true: it is easy to craft an argument that contains nuanced reasoning, but still comes up with a clear answer. In the case of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (and another of the easily “caricatured” writings, Poems from Gauntanamo), the contempt for America and the West is indeed nuanced and multi-dimensional.

Quite a few of the other reading selections form a litany of U.S. transgressions, focusing on such matters as collateral damage from advanced U.S. weaponry, the treatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centers and elsewhere, and advanced interrogation techniques of suspected terrorists (considered to be torture by the writers).

But as bad as those reading selections are, glaring omissions of important perspectives may be even more revealing about the bias. Any doubts that ENG 72 is deliberately one-sided should be eliminated upon realizing what has been left out of the course. Consider the following:

  • It is hard to fathom any course on the “Literature of 9/11” that does not include selections from the Koran and other Islamic literature about Islam’s perpetual conflict with the non-Islamic world. There are over 100 passages in the Koran alone that deal with violence toward non-Muslims. Islamic literature concerning such major religious concepts as Jihad and the division of the world into Dar es Islam (House of Islam) and Dar es Harb (House of War) should have been a key part of the course’s foundational principles.
    Yet in ENG 72, there are no passages from any Islamic religious literature. There is only brief mention of the motives of the perpetrators of the attacks. The motive was almost assuredly intrinsic to the Islamic beliefs of the 9/11 terrorists; they were generally middle and upper class Saudis, not victims of American aggression or oppression.
  • Just as glaring an omission as the lack of Islamic literature is the absence of American voices outraged by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Outrage and anger was the general consensus in this country in the aftermath of the attacks—how can any course on this topic leave out expressions of the emotions felt by most Americans and still claim objectivity?
  • Also missing are the voices of American servicemen. What about the many thousands of Americans who felt called to fight terrorism and enlisted? The only U.S. service voices in the course seem to be those criticizing the conduct of military guards at the Abu Ghraib prison.

And finally, who is Neel Ahuja? It doesn’t matter where he was born, or where he was on 9/11, only how he is likely to teach. The research interests he lists on his UNC profile reveal that he is no open-minded scholar, but is wholly given to the political left. In fact, his stated interests nearly run the entire left-wing gamut: “Postcolonial Theory, Multiethnic Literature, Transnational Literary Studies, Disability Studies, Caribbean, South Asia, Gender And Sexuality, Ecocriticism, Animal Studies, Visual Culture.”

His published research makes it clear that activism, not scholarship, is Ahuja’s goal. (He is featured prominently in a recent Pope Center report, The Decline of the English Department, that was sent to the printer before this controversy arose.)

Given that the included content is overwhelmingly anti-American or “vague,” that the course omits some of the most essential perspectives, and that the professor is a hard-left ideologue, the only proper conclusion can be that the course was crafted to present a biased picture. It is time for the Trustees of UNC-Chapel Hill to step up and end this politicized abuse of the curriculum. And in doing so, establish themselves as the voice of reason, since the administration seems incapable of proper judgment in many curricular matters.

Reprinted with permission of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy