ROCKLAND, Maine — The hue and cry over a coming speech by an Arabic news network journalist at a history museum’s fundraiser has sparked ticket sales, attracted promised protesters and led to long online debates about national security, patriotism and free speech.
But police in Rockland, where the speech by Al-Jazeera’s Washington, D.C., Bureau Chief Abderrahim Foukara will take place on July 28, said Wednesday that they’re not worried about the event at the Strand Theatre getting out of control.
“We don’t anticipate any problems,” said Rockland Deputy Police Chief Wally Tower. “We do anticipate that they will just quietly protest, as long as they do so in a way that’s law-abiding.”
Tower explained that a representative of a group he would not identify had called to ask if they needed a permit to protest and he told him they did not.
“We will monitor it and decide what we’re going to do,” he said.
Foukara has been selected as the keynote speaker at the annual gala fundraiser for the General Henry Knox Museum in Thomaston. Knox was an American Revolutionary War hero, Gen. George Washington’s chief of artillery and the brand-new country’s first secretary of war.
The decision to have Foukara speak at the event has led many to criticize the museum for legitimizing a network they believe is a mouthpiece for Islamic militants and terrorists.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Arabic news network often was portrayed by American media and politicians as a “terrorist news network.”
That perception may be changing among some people, but not everyone.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled the network out for its effective coverage of the recent pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East called the “Arab Spring.”
Mackenzie Andersen of East Boothbay said Tuesday that in a time when there is a great deal of interest in the American Revolution, it’s surprising to her that the museum did not invite a national historian to speak. She also pointed out that the museum’s press materials have called Foukara the gala’s “honoree.”
Museum director Ellen Dyer has said that Foukara will not be receiving any award or honor at the event.
“Genuinely deserving authors and media people who are working to educate the public about America’s founding history and political philosophy go un-honored,” Andersen wrote in an email sent Wednesday to the Bangor Daily News. “No special status conferred upon them by the General Henry Knox Museum.”
Dyer said that Foukara is not being paid to speak at the fundraiser, although the museum is bringing him to Maine.
She said that while people have contacted the museum with their concerns about the event, she’s also heard from proponents.
“There has actually been a number of people in the local communities who have called to express their support,” she said, adding that ticket sales are “doing well” and she expects the event will sell out.
Dyer also said that the people who called to voice their concerns have not struck her as being dangerous or “non-law-abiding.”
The museum has moved its post-speech reception for select ticket holders and museum supporters from the Camden National Bank in downtown Rockland to a private home because of the outcry.
Regarding additional security measures for the event, she said that museum officials are “monitoring the situation.”
“We may or may not take security measures. That has not been determined yet,” she said.
Efforts to reach Foukara, whom Dyer said is traveling internationally this week for business, were unsuccessful.
As of late afternoon on Wednesday, there were more than 500 comments posted online in reaction to a BDN article about the upcoming speech and the controversy around it. An informal poll on the BDN website showed that 73 percent of respondents disagreed with the decision to have Foukara speak at the gala event.
Commenters debated xenophobia, the legitimacy of Al-Jazeera, U.S. foreign policy and Islam, among many other topics.
“If we continue to play the ostrich and hide our heads, the world will eat us alive. We need to be more open and listen. If we just keep killing everyone we do not agree with, people will realize we are the problem and get us… just a thought,” wrote a commenter identified as “beyonditall.”
In response commenter Susan Andersen wrote, “You mean like cutting off the head of journalist Daniel Pearl? When was the last time- or any time you heard about that in this country? We do NOT kill people just because they disagree with us- UNLIKE Al-Jazeera- We have freedom of the press in this country. There is no such station as Fox News in the Mideast that criticizes the regime. In fact in most countries protesters were killed.”
Al-Jazeera has its headquarters in Doha, Qatar, and is broadcast to more than 220 million households in more than 100 countries, according to information obtained from its website.
Jim Matlack of Rockport is on the board of directors of the Camden Conference, a nonprofit organization with the mission to “foster informed discourse on world issues.” He did not mince words Wednesday when asked for his thoughts on the controversy around the speaker.
“I think it’s a foolish bit of extremism to somehow criticize the museum for bringing in a speaker who people deserve to hear,” he said. “I think most of the people who criticize it severely have never actually watched it.”
According to Matlack, the negative reaction by many is “of a piece with the tendency to overreact to Muslim organizations, spokespersons, attempts to build the Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan. It’s just not factual, not accurate, and represents a narrow-minded extremism.”
He said that those who do attend Foukara’s speech will no doubt hear a “very interesting and informed view” about events of the Arab Spring.
But that view is not shared by everyone. Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell, who is running against Sen. Olympia Snowe for the 2012 Republican nomination, wrote in an email Wednesday that he found it “a little odd” that the museum has decided to honor the bureau chief of an organization whose “suspected ties to anti-Americanism and terror have not yet been fully investigated.”
However, Dodge also wrote that he thinks that censorship of the event would not be the solution.
“I don’t believe that knee-jerk fear of America’s Muslim population or Muslim journalists/networks is an effective way to combat extremism in the Muslim community in Maine or elsewhere,” he wrote. “Surely it might be a better for people to attend and question the editor on the actions of his organization.”
Tickets for the 2011 General Henry Knox Museum gala are $35 for general admission and $25 for museum members. The event helps raise money to maintain a replica of Montpelier, the Thomaston mansion that was home to Gen. Henry Knox.
For more information, call 354-8062 or visit www.knoxmuseum.org.