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Advocates For Syrian Rebels Convince Student Group To Cancel Event With Journalist Rania Khalek

A clique of individuals, many of whom hold themselves out as advocates of the Syrian rebels, pressured a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at the University of North Carolina and convinced the chapter to cancel an event with journalist Rania Khalek.

The individuals employed pressure in the same manner that pro-Israel students and groups typically employ pressure to shut down pro-Palestine events that they perceive to be unjustifiably against Israel.

“An Evening With Rania Khalek” was scheduled for February 27. It was co-sponsored by the Black Student Movement and Criminal Justice Awareness and Action. It was promoted as an opportunity for students to hear about the “role Israel plays in training the U.S. police force and how this impacts the lives of disenfranchised communities from Palestine to Baltimore and beyond.”

She was also expected to highlight Israel’s influence on the “United States’ border security and its use of drones as weapons of destruction.” The chapter expected her to address the implications of President Donald Trump’s election on Palestine.

Event organizers described Khalek as “an outspoken independent journalist known for her groundbreaking work covering Palestine and Syria,” but at no point was Khalek planning to talk about the conflict in Syria.

On February 26, she was informed the event was canceled after several complaints, which were primarily posted to the Facebook page for the event.

“They received several complaints that I’m pro-Assad and that I’m anti-Muslim,” Khalek told Shadowproof.

According to Khalek, organizers invited her to speak at an event in January. She had to reschedule the event to February, and the February date was set a couple weeks ago. The intense pressure against SJP did not publicly manifest itself until February 25.

“After receiving much feedback and after careful consideration, we have decided to cancel tomorrow’s event with Rania Khalek,” the UNC SJP chapter announced. “We do not endorse nor reject her views on the Syrian civil war as they remain relatively unclear, according to our members’ diverse opinions of Rania’s analyses.”

“Although Rania was not going to speak about Syria, we understand the Syrian conflict is a contentious issue and the invitation was met with a lot of anger. We appreciate the concerns of those who have reached out to us, especially our Syrian supporters, and believe her invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views. SJP supports liberation movements for all oppressed people and recognizes their right to self-determination,” the chapter added.

“Enemies Of Mankind”

The cancellation was celebrated by Idrees Ahmad, a journalist whose work has been published by The Guardian, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Vice News, The New Republic, and The Atlantic. Sarab Abu Adib al-Jijakli, a Syrian American community organizer, advertising executive, and the national president of the Network of Arab American Professionals, praised the chapter.

Michael D. Weiss, a Daily Beast contributor, was pleased. Sana Saeed and Amr Kawji, both affiliated with AJ Plus, were glad the chapter canceled the event. But none was as proud of the students in the UNC SJP chapter as Oz Katerji.

Katerji works for the Turkish State Broadcaster, TRT World, and when asked how much damage he would like to see inflicted upon Khalek and her journalistic career, he responded, “I will never stop fighting against Assad’s propaganda campaign, over my dead body.”

Asked if Katerji would like to see nobody donate to her work ever again, he admitted, “Yes, that would be preferable. Maybe one day you will all apologize for your shameful politics but that won’t stop me.”

“I will never stop. Not with any of you. I will never rest while you are given platforms or publishing opportunities,” Katerji proclaimed. He maintained Khalek is “no journalist” but rather a “shill” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran. He described people like Khalek as enemies of mankind and hoped God would have mercy on her because he had no plans to show mercy.

Katerji has not publicly indicated whether he contacted the SJP chapter to lobby for the cancellation of Khalek’s event. Regardless, his conduct exemplifies the kind of overzealous and malicious nature of activists, who are committed to inflicting a kind of economic violence against people who offer effective nuanced analyses about Syria and refuse to toe their line.

“A tightly-knit network of Syrian regime change activists has composed a de facto blacklist of those who have refused to toe their ruthlessly enforced, hyper-sectarian ideological line,” journalist Max Blumenthal wrote. “Their goal is to deny the message by destroying the messenger.”

According to Blumenthal, who has also had his professional career targeted by Katerji, he has “worked enthusiastically with Israeli aid organizations and demonized leading Palestine solidarity activists as anti-Semites, including the founder of Electronic Intifada. He freely admits that a Canary Mission-style campaign is being organized to silence ideological foes like Rania.”

Canary Mission is a shadowy outfit that engages in modern-day McCarthyism to vilify individual Palestinian solidarity activists in the United States. They have directed their attention particularly at students in groups on college campuses, like SJP, and aim to prevent students who engage in pro-Palestinian activism future employment opportunities (just like Katerji and others did to Khalek in this case).

The effort to silence Khalek escalated substantially in recent months, especially when she traveled to Syria to see for herself what was happening to Syrians in Aleppo. She went on a delegation with Western journalists to a conference in Damascus organized by a nongovernmental organization known as the British Syrian Society, which was co-founded by Assad’s father-in-law. She had her name added to a program as a speaker without her consent. So did a number of other journalists, however, after the program circulated online, she was the only one who was targeted by this faction.

As a result, Khalek was forced to resign from the editorial board of The Electronic Intifada. She had to leave Damascus and never attended the conference. She subsequently found it impossible to convince major progressive media outlets to publish her reporting from Aleppo, even though it was topical and frequently in the news last November.

Khalek criticized Salafism and Wahhabism, which are ultra-conservative strains of Islam. These ideologies inspire jihadist groups like al Qaida and the Islamic State. She faced a backlash from people accusing her of Islamophobia for negatively writing about these modern far-right ideologies on social media. And, whether coincidental or not, that is when the pressure to cancel her event really escalated.

“Why Is It That I Have To Fight On All These Fronts?”

“I feel bad for the students,” Khalek shared. “They were put under a lot of pressure, and they really wanted to have me come talk but ultimately they voted to cancel it. The reasoning was they didn’t want to have to deal with all this controversy around Syria.”

“I don’t agree with the fact that they canceled it, however, I totally understand. They already deal with an immense level of backlash for their Palestine work on their campuses. So, it’s really not fair that they should have to deal with pressure group attacks from people who want regime change in Syria” as well.

She expressed immense frustration at the fact that media outlets, which cover Palestinian issues or issues of free speech, have not covered or spoken up more forcefully to condemn what happened.

“Why is it that I have to fight on all of these fronts?” Khalek said. “I’m being completely silenced. I already lost my job because of the Syria trolls. Because all I did was question the narrative around the rebels and challenged it. I lost my job because I went to Syria and tried to see for myself what was happening. I lost my job because of an insane smear campaign as a result of going to Syria. Now, I’m being canceled and no-platformed as if I’m Milo [Yiannopoulos] or something.”

“I’ve never been as marginalized and ostracized as I have been by these pro-regime change in Syria pressure groups. This includes my reporting on Palestine. That never got me this much backlash, ever,” Khalek added.

Amr Kawji said to the SJP chapter, “Save yourselves the embarrassment and cancel your event with Rania Khalek—an Islamophobic pro-Assad propagandist. So ashamed.”

“As a Syrian American (and former SJP member),” he wrote on their Facebook event page, “I am asking you kindly to either cancel this event with Rania Khalek or replace her with a coherent speaker. Rania’s comments on Syria and Islam have been extremely hurtful to many people, and she should not be allowed to continue to spew her propaganda. Save yourselves the embarrassment and please cancel the event or find someone else.”

Adam Sabra, a professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, also wrote on the Facebook event page, “I share other people’s concerns about inviting Rania Khalek to campus. In particular, her support for the Syrian regime undermines her credibility to speak on behalf of the Palestinian cause. I ask you to reconsider.”

Shadowproof reached out to Sabra for examples of what concerned him about Khalek and whether he considered the kind of precedent this pressure to shut down Khalek’s event might set on the UNC campus. Sabra did not respond to the request for comment.

Hussam Ayloush, the executive director for CAIR-LA who openly wished a Russian military jet that crashed had killed more military personnel and later apologized, declared, “As a lifelong advocate for freedom and justice in Palestine, I applaud you for refusing to throw the Syrian people and their just struggle for freedom and dignity under the bus. Palestine is too just and noble of a cause to allow an Assad apologist to taint it, even if she claims to stand for Palestinian freedom.”

“We stand for freedom for the people of Palestine, Syria, and all those oppressed. Supporters of tyranny can never be true allies,” Ayloush added.

As may be evident, when those committed to shutting down Khalek condemn her alleged views, there are zero specifics given. Labels are attached to vilify her without any attempt to back up those labels whatsoever.

Sustained Attacks On A Journalist’s Economic Livelihood

Writer Carl Beijer argued people like Katerji are “engaged in a deliberate, continuing campaign of attacks on Rania Khalek’s economic livelihood in order to force her to abandon a political position.” Their hope is to “leverage capitalism towards inflicting as much violence on her.” They effectively, through their actions, are okay with threatening her with “food insecurity,” “unsafe living conditions,” and loss of health insurance. They intend to force her into poverty.

This is economic violence, Beijer asserted, and why “people of conscience should find this behavior absolutely revolting.”

Khalek considers what she is dealing with to be a form of “economic terrorism.”

“People like Oz are trying to sabotage any prospect for me to ever be able to make money, to ever be able to feed myself and put a roof over my head,” Khalek stated. “It’s McCarthyism at its worst. And it should not be met shrugs and silence because people are scared of the Syrian issue. This is where people need to have solidarity with journalists.”

What people like Katerji do works. It has worked against Khalek. “There is a soft boycott of me.”

Part of the attack on her included outrage that she commented on sects of Islam when she is not Muslim. There was outrage that a secular non-Muslim Arab woman condemned Salafism and Wahhabism.

To Khalek, this weaponization of identity politics to destroy her reputation is similar to how pro-Israel groups target Palestinian voices and work to suppress their work.

Her family is from Lebanon and have Druze heritage. These religious ideologies, according to Khalek, are led by figures, who call for the death or enslavement of Druze people.

“As a minority from the region, I have every right to speak out against the religious ideologies that call for my death. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Finally, while a number of people came to her defense and condemned the decision by the SJP chapter, she believes if a Zionist or pro-Israel group had shut down her event there would be much more attention to the cancellation. But apparently, “It’s perfectly okay for someone to cancel talks because they don’t like someone’s reporting on Syria. I just don’t see why that’s not as big of a deal.”

*Note: The UNC SJP chapter was contacted for comment. They did not respond before publication.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."