Spencer, who blogs at www.jihadwatch.org, is scheduled to speak at “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” sponsored by Ave Maria Radio.
The symposium, which will be held in the student union, will feature pro-Muslim speakers, too. But Spencer’s appearance is controversial. The New York Times reported that Spencer’s comments were cited 64 times by the Norwegian white supremacist who killed 76 people in Norway in 2011. Spencer was banned from the United Kingdom in June for what the British government said was his association with hate groups.
“He represents true bigotry,” said Shadid Lewis, former president of a Hampton, Va., mosque and a Muslim Debate Initiative member who is scheduled to debate Spencer at the Saturday symposium. “It’s a pretty big thing to be banned from a country.”
Ave Maria radio station host Al Kresta, who will moderate the debate, isn’t shying away from controversy.
“If having a debate like this is considered incendiary, than that’s evidence that we need debates like this,” Kresta said Tuesday. “People think you can only live together peacefully if you agree on everything, and that’s not true.”
“When this conference is over, Christians and Muslims won’t be holding hands and singing Kumbayah,” Kresta said earlier in a news release. “Everyone who participates in this frank, no-holds-barred discussion, however, will be thankful for free speech and a civil society which permits people with irreconcilable differences to understand if not agree with one another.”
Spencer, who identifies himself as a Catholic on his blog, could not be reached for comment.
Lansing Catholic bishop Earl Boyea is scheduled to lead a mass at the end of the symposium. Boyea’s scheduled appearance is raising concern among Muslim leaders, too.
Boyea “neither endorses nor condemns any of the featured presenters,” the bishop’s office said Tuesday in a statement. “Bishop Boyea hopes that the symposium, and dialog like it, can spur what Pope Francis last week called "mutual respect through education" between Christianity and Islam.”
In January, a Catholic diocese in Massachusetts withdrew an invitation to Spencer to speak at a Catholic men’s conference in Worcester, responding to concerns voiced by Muslims in the area. Last month the Diocese of Sacramento canceled an appearance by Spencer in a Catholic church.
Victor Begg, senior adviser to the Michigan Muslim Community Council, questioned Tuesday why Catholic Bishop Boyea would appear at such an event, “knowing these people have an Islamophobia, bigoted agenda.”
“I think it’s sad to see that this group would try to stage this kind of confrontational encounter, when Catholic and Muslim leaders are engaged in an ongoing, cordial dialogue,” said Dawood Zwink, executive director of the Michigan Muslim Community Council. “I don’t know why these organizers would choose as a headliner someone who just this summer was barred (from the United Kingdom) because his presentations are so incendiary. It’s not in keeping with American values of civil dialogue.”
Richard Thompson, the former Oakland County prosecutor who founded the Thomas More Law Center, also will speak at the Ave Maria symposium and defended Spencer.
“He’s a well-known author and spokesperson regarding Islam,” Thompson said. “We still live in a society that enshrines the constitutional right to free speech and we should exercise that right regardless of whether some people may be upset or offended.
Eastern Michigan University released a statement saying “the event is not sponsored, financially supported, or being promoted by” the university.
“Our facility is being rented as it is throughout the year by many organizations with no affiliation to the university,” the statement read. “As a public institution, and under the freedom of speech protections provided by the First Amendment, we do not and can not make determinations about access to our facilities based on the viewpoints being presented.”