The inherent dangers of social media, especially one that restricts messages to 140 characters, became apparent when a tweet led to a virtual ideological war about freedom of expression after an Indian-American professor at Rutgers University likened the brutality of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, to war casualties from the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A Tweet by Deepa Kumar, associate professor of media studies at Rutgers, on March 26 said — “Yes ISIS is brutal, but US is more so, 1.3 million killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” She links that tweet to a story which ran on the left-leaning radio station Democracy Now, which interviewed authors of a new report on casualties in those regions and estimated the deaths at 1.3 million.
Fox News in its popular day-time show “Outnumbered” on July 27, featured a discussion on Kumar’s tweet where Judge Andrew Napolitano, Fox’s senior judicial analyst, and several panelists panned Kumar, but agreed she had the right to hold and express her views. The comments however, went further, questioning whether it was right for a publicly funded university to hire professors with these seemingly anti-American views, a paradoxical argument for and against free speech. The commentators also accused Kumar of leading the charge against inviting former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as commencement speaker in 2014. Rice withdrew in the face of opposition from sections of the faculty and students.
In Her Defense
Following the high profile Fox News coverage, Kumar provided her defense to the journal Inside Higher Ed, which in its July 29 report, “Targeted for Tweets” says things were pretty low key after Kumar’s March tweet, until “far-right” blogs and Fox News ran with it. “Now Kumar is being flooded with hate mail and even violent threats,” it says. Kumar did not respond to News India Times request for an interview.
Kumar, however, did speak to Inside Higher Ed. “This is not the only case of a professor being targeted by Fox News and by the right — in fact, there’s a long history here of trying to silence and intimidate faculty who have dissenting opinions on the U.S. government and policies in the Middle East,” she said. “The only way to push back and defend myself is to be public about it.” She also countered Fox News discussants’ assertions that she orchestrated the charge against Condoleeza Rice. Her defense – faculty wanted to “engage” Rice in a “dialogue” rather than hear her commencement speech. “They distorted a bunch of things about what I’ve said and done,” Kumar complained. According to the Inside Higher Ed piece, responses have contained racist and sexist slurs. A fellow professor at Rutgers accused Fox News of presenting a tweet out of context months after it was made, and argued that the public could not understand the comment in a “larger context.
Kumar is no stranger to vitriol on the Web. On Sept. 11, 2013, after she gave an interview to a relatively obscure web news channel, “breakingtheset” which had a few thousand listeners, one apparent Rutgers alumna fumed, “She just lectured that America is more brutal than ISIS, and Rutgers is funding this …. I’ll have to remember it on the next Rutgers alumni fund drive when they call me begging for money.” Kumar said Fox News coverage of her tweet followed after a far-right group called SoCawlege published her Twitter history after a June conference on terrorism studies where she spoke and made a slide presentation.
Storm In A Teacup
While Twitter sound-bites are a problem, Dilip Paliath, founder and current head of the Republican Indian Committee- PAC, said he agreed with the Fox News commentators and contended the whole affair was more a storm in a teacup. “She’s entitled to her opinion. I guess what you consider brutal is subjective. I disagree with her (Kumar) however,” Paliath told News India Times. No one even in the liberal camp was defending ISIS either, he pointed out. At the same time he speculated, why would anything Kumar say matter as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned. “She doesn’t make U.S. policy. She’s a professor in a New Jersey university. All they do is publish – Publish or Perish’ is the motto of academia.” The Maryland resident says he listens neither to Fox nor MSNBC. “My point is – really who cares.” President Obama is not calling Kumar on how he should deal with ISIS and neither is the U.S. Congress. And Twitter is not deciding foreign policy. “In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter,” Paliath said
Considering Professor Kumar’s body of work on Islamophobia and U.S. imperialism, the tweet was hardly a surprise and merely more of the same. She has been a strong critic of U.S. foreign policy and American media.In 2008, she published a book entitled, “Outside the Box,” and in 2013 one called “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,” where she argues 9/11 alone did not create the anti-Muslim syndrome. She criticizes mainstream media in a Sept. 10, 2014 article, “ISIS, 9/11, and the Terrorism Time Loop,” of lacking any “honest discussion” of how the U.S. War on Terror “rather than halting the growth of violent Islamist groups, actually fosters fundamentalism.” In a June 1 essay entitled ” Play it Again, (Uncle) Sam: A Brief History of US Imperialism, Propaganda, and the News,” on her blog – Empire Bytes she holds “establishment media” responsible for being “enablers of war and empire” rather than “watchdogs” of the government.
But Kumar is only one of many critics of the U.S. role in the Middle East and also media coverage. Commentators from the left and right and human rights organizations have formed a chorus. Famous commentator Nat Hentoff called for President Obama’s impeachment. Attorney for the advocacy organization Reprieve, Jennifer Gibson wrote a report, Living Under Drones, in 2013, and testified about her findings on deaths from U.S. drones in Pakistan before both the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament. She has said the U.S. was setting an “extremely dangerous precedent” and that the drone war was “contrary to international law.”
In October 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a 97-page report on drones where it said there were at least two cases of “clear violations of international law” and strong evidence of violations in the four other strikes, BBC reported. On Sept. 9, 2013, Fox News Insider ran an interview of Judge Napolitano, where he explained that a European judge could indict President Obama as a war criminal if he went ahead with an attack on Syria. Amnesty International has outright accused the U.S. of war crimes through drone strikes in a 2013 report.
Kumar is also not the first Indian-American professor to be critical of U.S. policy. Professor Vijay Prasad of Trinity College, Connecticut has been a critic for many years. “Twitter is an easy medium for people to misconstrue what one is saying,” he told News India Times. As shorthand, Twitter demands snap judgments. “Prof. Kumar’s book is far more nuanced,” he contended. It is the difference between a book and a tweet. “I wish the journalists at Fox would have read her book before fulminating about her competence and politics.” What Kumar had done in the tweet, Prasad contended, was not uncommon. “She compared some numbers – between the destruction of Iraq by the US war machine and the killings of ISIS. Both are devastations. Neither has moral superiority over the other,” he said. He characterized Fox News journalism as “jingoism.”
Ved Chaudhary, founder of Educators Society for Heritage of India, had a different take on the matter. According to him, Kumar and a number of other left-leaning intellectuals, some of them products of Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, had been placed in “responsible” academic positions in the U.S. They were already outspoken critics in India and continue to remain so. “One should be free to criticize atrocities the U.S. forces may have committed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. At the same time however, “It is totally irresponsible to compare U.S. with ISIS.”