Activist suspects CAS fire set in protest

A human rights activist who spoke at Boston University Wednesday thinks the College of Arts and Sciences fire that took place that night was set in protest of her lecture, she said.

Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel, has spoken out repeatedly against Islamic law and treatment of women in the Middle East. She was walking to CAS from Hillel House at about 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday for her 7 p.m. lecture, which was hosted by BU Students for Israel and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

When the group arrived, the Boston Fire Department was already responding to a fire in a women’s bathroom on the second floor.

“It seems suspicious because it happened in the same building I was speaking at, 15 minutes before my speech,” Darwish said.

“Bathrooms don’t get set on fire,” she said. “It was obviously intentional.”

Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation by the arson squad, Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve Macdonald said BFD officials suspect vandalism. The fire was caused by an individual setting fire to a paper towel roll.

Darwish’s lectures have often met opposition, she said. Just last month, she was uninvited to speak at Columbia University and Princeton University.

“I have received some threats about speaking on college campuses,” she said. “I was told, ‘We will shut you up, we will not let you speak, you’re no longer a Muslim, you shouldn’t speak.’ I was told outrageous things to my face.”

Darwish said she had not received any threatening messages prior to the BU lecture. None of the lecture organizers said they noticed anything out of the ordinary when planning the lecture or en route to the lecture.

Because of the negative attention Darwish’s lectures draw, Darwish had requested a security detail. Birthright Israel coordinator for BU Hillel KateLynn Plotnick, who helped organize the lecture, said they had hired one BU Police Department officer for the lecture, and he was on scene when the fire began.

Plotnick said she found the situation “fishy.”

“It may have been in protest of her, it may not have been, but I think it is very fishy that someone would just go into a bathroom and start a fire,” she said. “It was clearly meant to disrupt something.”

BU Students for Israel Vice President Adam Korn said the fire deterred attendance. Although the fire was extinguished by 7:15 p.m., people were not allowed back inside CAS until the smoke cleared out. After changing locations, the lecture began nearly an hour after its scheduled time with only 15 people in attendance.

“We lost a lot of people,” he said. “She’s written a lot of books, she’s gone to campuses where she’s had hundreds of people to speak to. To have only 15 people to speak to, I think that was the purpose of the fire.”

Darwish said she usually speaks to “practically filled” rooms.

“This is another level of intimidation and unfortunately, we are starting to look more and more like the culture I came from where you cannot speak the truth, where you cannot give your opinion, where there is nothing called freedom of speech,” Darwish said.

CAS and College of Communication senior Ben Keil, who was part of the group walking over to CAS, said though the thought of someone setting the fire in protest did occur to him, he does not think people should assume this scenario until the investigations are complete.

“I’m not going to make an assumption that somebody would do something so negative,” he said. “Did I think it was impossible? No, but I certainly wouldn’t presume that.”

Keil said he is not worried about his safety on campus.

“Even if this were an act of vandalism, clearly it was done in a way to prevent anyone from getting physically hurt,” he said. “A fire in a trashcan, obviously it’s a terrible thing for somebody would do, but I don’t think anybody is after anybody else.”

Darwish said she still thinks the fire was intentional, and could have been harmful.

“It’s a type of terrorism,” she said. “A girl could have been in the bathroom. Someone could have been burned, injured.

“Frankly, when I see this type of terrorism to stop me from speaking, it reminds me of when I lived in Gaza, and it reminds me of the dictatorships I lived under,” Darwish said. “This is what I’m familiar with, but I thought I left all this tyranny in the Middle East.”
(Tags: Anti-Semitism, University, Boston University, Terrorism)