Who is Asna Tabassum? Why did THIS American university canceled her speech citing safety concerns?

Public details remain scarce, with Guzman only acknowledging a recent "alarming tenor" surrounding the valedictorian selection.

Mayank Kasyap
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Courtesy: X/Phil_Lewis_

New Delhi: The University of Southern California (USC) has ignited a firestorm of controversy after cancelling the valedictorian speech of Asna Tabassum, a Muslim student leader. Citing safety concerns amidst the ongoing Middle East conflict, the university made the unprecedented decision to silence its top graduating student.

Speech silenced, questions raised

USC Provost Andrew Guzman defended the move, claiming it had "nothing to do with freedom of speech" but was solely focused on ensuring campus security during the May 10th commencement ceremony. However, Tabassum, a biomedical engineering major, vehemently challenged this rationale. "Whether USC's decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety" remains a question mark, she stated.

Guzman's 'alarming tenor' 

Guzman's statement provided no specifics about Tabassum's speech, background, or political views that supposedly posed security threats. Public details remain scarce, with Guzman only acknowledging a recent "alarming tenor" surrounding the valedictorian selection. He attributed this heightened tension to a confluence of social media buzz and the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict, sparking external voices to weigh in and escalate potential risks.

A difficult choice?

Faced with this situation, USC opted for caution, prioritizing safety over tradition. "Our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement," Guzman declared, emphasizing the need to prioritize safety. The Los Angeles Times confirmed this decision marks a first for the prestigious university.

Hate crimes on the rise, tensions simmer

According to reports, public safety officials and civil rights advocates have documented an alarming rise in hate crimes against Muslims, Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians in the US since the October 2023 Israel-Gaza conflict. College campuses haven't been immune, experiencing heightened tensions related to the crisis.

Transparency denied, frustration mounts

Tabassum, who identifies as a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim, revealed that university officials refused to share details of their security assessment during their April 14th meeting. She further claimed USC possessed the capabilities to implement appropriate security measures for her speech but opted not to, prioritizing aesthetics over student safety. In her view, this amounted to "caving to fear and rewarding hatred."

Accusations fly, motives questioned

Trojans for Israel and We Are Tov, USC-based pro-Israel groups, had previously called for Tabassum's removal as commencement speaker, citing past social media posts they deemed anti-Semitic. Local media reported their opposition stemmed from an Instagram link advocating for a single Palestinian state and the abolishment of Israel. However, Tabassum clarified that she posted the link five years ago and did not create the content.

A fight for equality, not hatred

Tabassum, referencing her studies in genocide resistance, expressed concern about conflating calls for human rights with hatred. She aimed to use her commencement speech to offer her graduating class a message of hope amidst widespread fear.

Silencing dissent or protecting safety?

Sonya Meyerson-Knox, spokesperson for the Jewish anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, views the USC episode as part of a larger trend of students being branded anti-Semitic for questioning Israeli government policies or supporting Palestinian rights. She emphasized that holding Israel accountable for potential human rights violations should not be equated with anti-Semitism. However, some Jewish groups maintain that anti-Zionist rhetoric can often mask deeper forms of anti-Jewish prejudice.

Right to speak is important

USC's actions highlight the delicate balance between safeguarding free speech and ensuring campus safety. Tabassum, chosen as valedictorian from nearly 100 applicants based on academic merit, had not even begun writing her speech when the university withdrew their invitation.

The Council on American Islamic Relations, an advocacy group supporting Tabassum, has launched an online campaign demanding her reinstatement as commencement speaker. With thousands expected to attend the graduation ceremony, USC's decision will continue to spark debate on free speech, security concerns, and the complexities of the Middle East conflict.