Mohammed Mushtaha, imam at Dhu ‘l-Nurayn mosque in Shuja’iyah in Gaza, was kidnapped, and then released by Hamas. (photo courtesy of Ala Mohammed Mushtaha)

Free Press Investigations Get Results

DEI in retreat. A captured imam is freed. An anti-Israel map is taken down. Plus, Carole Hooven on leaving Harvard, a hostage speaks, and more.

We’ve reported on a lot of bad news of late. (Don’t blame us! It’s rough out there!) But sometimes there is actual good news. Today, we bring you three bright spots. 

First: the great DEI rollback 

We’ve reported extensively on the spread of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives on campus and in the workplace. The spread of DEI has led to a great deal of censorship and bullying in the name of ensuring safe spaces. What’s more, these programs often undermine their purported goals, driving colleagues and students apart rather than bringing them together. (Scroll down to read Carole Hooven’s essay on how she got caught in a DEI web that ultimately meant she had to leave Harvard. Or watch Bari speak about its pernicious forces in her monologue: “Why DEI Must End for Good.”)

So, here at The Free Press, we’re happy to see these programs being scaled back, and in some cases, shut down entirely. As John Sailer reports for us today, DEI is in retreat:

Lawmakers in more than a dozen red states have either passed or proposed sweeping higher education reform packages curtailing DEI initiatives. Florida banned state funding for DEI programs. Texas banned DEI offices outright. Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt signed an executive order in December that prohibited funding DEI initiatives not just at universities but within all state agencies. Elsewhere, university trustees and regents have played a pivotal role in reform efforts.

Read his full roundup here: 

Second: an imam is freed in Gaza

Readers will remember the piece we published two weeks ago by Ala Mohammed Mushtaha, who revealed how his father, a respected imam in Gaza, had been kidnapped by Hamas because he refused to brainwash his people with their politics. By revealing the details of his father’s abduction, Ala knew he was taking a gamble. He explained why, writing: “My hope in telling this story to the public, and putting my name to it, is to somehow offer my father a measure of protection. Hamas may wish to release him and show the world that they would never harm an admired mosque preacher.”

Well, we have good news: we have confirmed via two Gazan civilians familiar with the case that Mushtaha was released from captivity on January 6. 

Ghaith al-Omari, the senior Palestinian affairs expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explained the dynamics behind Mushtaha’s release: “Hamas is very sensitive to public information that challenges its claim to Islamic legitimacy. One such challenge came last year when Iraqi clerics issued a fatwa denouncing Hamas for its oppression of a Muslim population. Another, which happened this month, was the revelation that it had kidnapped a respected cleric in Gaza. As word spread of Mohammed Mushtaha’s abduction, first in the media and then through Palestinian demands for his release, Hamas appears to have decided that the political cost of holding him captive was too great.”

Syrian native Ahed al-Hendi, who was imprisoned by the Assad regime for alleged democratic youth activism in 2006–07 and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Peace Communications, explained the power of public pressure in these scenarios: “When The Free Press began to spread the word about Mushtaha’s imprisonment and the story went viral, Hamas risked alienating elements in the protest movement who may care more about a Palestinian Muslim captive than Israeli ones. So they let him go.”

This story was part of our ongoing Voices from Gaza collaboration with the Center for Peace Communications. Look for more stories to come from our partnership.

Last: a New York City school apologizes

Finally, we have an update on the New York City school that wiped Israel from the map from the reporter who broke the story, Francesca Block

District 15 Superintendent Rafael Alvarez, who oversees PS 261, the elementary school in Brooklyn that displayed the map, wrote to parents yesterday that it “had been removed from the classroom as part of an effort to assess the school’s needs and goals, and to respond to community concerns.”

“Though the intentions of the map were to highlight the Arabic-speaking countries around the world, we understand the concerns that have been raised, and I express my personal apology for the effect the map has had on some members of our community,” his letter read, adding that the district “stand[s] against all forms of hate and bias, including antisemitism or Islamophobia.”

Alisa Minyukova, a Jewish parent who has a seventh-grade son at one of the middle schools in District 15, told The Free Press she found Alvarez’s letter “disgusting.”

“Why he can’t be clear on what happened is the most offensive part of the letter to me. Why can’t we clearly state that this is an inappropriate map and the reason it is inappropriate is because Israel was left out of the map,” she said. “It’s a country; it’s not a figment of our imagination. We don’t leave out states or other countries on world maps.”

Meantime, U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents part of the Bronx, has written a letter to New York City Department of Education Chancellor David Banks calling the map “irresponsible, reckless and dangerous,” the New York Post first reported. He also pointed to our reporting showing that Qatar Foundation International, run by the wealthy Arab state’s ruling class, has donated over $1 million to the NYC Department of Education from 2019 to 2022. 

Torres told The Free Press yesterday that “propaganda campaigns and foreign influence operations have no place in the classroom, whose purpose should be instruction, not indoctrination. The Free Press’s reporting leaves me wondering: To what extent does the incident at PS 261 represent the tip of the iceberg?”

He is now calling for an investigation into the incident and into all programs within NYC public schools that receive funding from Qatar Foundation International and other foreign entities.

Biologist Carole Hooven: ‘Why I Left Harvard’ 

Back in the summer of 2021, evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven, then a professor at Harvard, appeared on Honestly to talk about her acclaimed book on testosterone. 

Given that Hooven is an expert on behavioral endocrinology and sex differences, and given that we live in an upside-down world in which acknowledging those differences is like touching a third rail, it’s no surprise her work attracted controversy. But after she stated banal facts about human biology on Fox News, DEI activists at Harvard targeted her for cancellation and undermined her work to the point she had to leave the job she loved.

When then-Harvard president Claudine Gay appeared before Congress last month, Hooven’s name—and her departure—came up in questioning as an example of the university’s intolerance.

Today in The Free Press, Hooven tells her full story and explains what the university must do to live up to its own motto: veritas. 

‘The Girls I Met in the Tunnels’

ICYMI: Yesterday we published an essay by Agam Goldstein-Almog, a seventeen-year-old Israeli hostage who was held by Hamas for 51 days. 

On October 7, Agam’s father and sister were murdered by Hamas terrorists at the family’s home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Then Agam, her mother, and two young brothers were taken to Gaza. In the tunnels there, she met other young female hostages who told her about the sexual abuse they had suffered. Writing in The Free Press, Agam states: “I cannot breathe freely knowing that they are still there.” 

Read her essay here:

Letters to the editor

Last week, Ben Kawaller offered up a tongue-in-cheek proposal to help fix higher ed: Why don’t the professors sick of teaching rebellious progressive students at elite schools just leave and educate the more docile undergrads at a conservative college like Brigham Young? 

A few emails from Utah landed in our inbox. Here are two of them.

Rick Anderson, a faculty member at BYU, writes:

I was a bit bemused by Ben Kawaller’s recent piece for The Free Press, in which he suggested that Ivy League professors fed up with their progressive students should “move schools and teach docile conservatives.” He cited my institution, Brigham Young University, as an example of such a school, one that he sarcastically characterized as a “bastion of free speech” and called a place where “the fascism comes from above, as God intended.” 

Mr. Kawaller and Free Press readers might be interested to know that BYU is in fact among the most ideologically diverse schools in the country. A 2022 study by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology reported that BYU’s student body is 48 percent conservative and 32 percent liberal, with the remaining 20 percent identifying as various shades of “moderate.” This tracks with my experience as both a former student and a current faculty member at BYU, where I’ve found a dramatically less monolithic political culture than at any of the other three universities where I’ve worked.

What explains this? In significant part, I think this diversity is a product of BYU’s religious mission—one that (among many other things) fosters kindness and mutual respect as essential dimensions of Christian discipleship. Faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be found across a broad spectrum of political and social views, and BYU’s students and faculty can express and discuss those views with a degree of freedom that is highly unusual in American higher education. If Mr. Kawaller genuinely believes that at BYU “fascism comes from above,” I’d invite him to come and see what BYU is actually like.

(Rick notes that his views are his own and are not offered on behalf of BYU.)

Meanwhile, Coleman Numbers, a student at BYU, has a different take. Here’s what he wrote: 

The image of Steven Pinker taking the lectern at my school made me laugh—and then it made me think. 

While in many ways I think BYU is a heterodox mecca, we also harbor our share of higher-ed ills, like an Honor Code that somewhat restricts free expression among students and faculty.

I have a close friend that I met when we were both missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like all students enrolling at BYU who are members of the Church, he was interviewed by an ecclesiastical leader and endorsed as someone who’s living that Honor Code fully—an Honor Code that stipulates we “participate regularly in Church services” and strive to “deepen faith and maintain gospel standards.”

A couple months ago, my friend told me that he had chosen to step away from the beliefs and practices of the Church. To add to a choice that’s been personally fraught, he faces losing his ecclesiastical endorsement. This means, according to BYU policy, he would have to “discontinue enrollment.”

My friend also feels that our campus culture isn’t receptive to his religiously heterodox views. “You have to be careful about what you talk about and with who,” he told me. “The believing people I’ve talked to about [his leaving the Church] are either free thinkers, leftists, and/or care about me [enough] not to let the news skew how they see me. I just wouldn’t talk about it with anyone else.”

What’s odd about BYU campus culture is that it constrains people with views both conservative and socially progressive from really saying what’s on their minds. I think this is because of conservative institutional policies and progressive cultural forces that create a disincentive for speech that is unique to BYU.

To be clear, I think BYU excels, in many ways, at championing classical liberal values, in no small part because of our theological and philosophical commitments. Our mission is explicitly to “assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” What’s more aspirational than that?

If we really want to fulfill our mission, Brigham Young University, like all others, has to choose a higher way—a code of ethics that has supreme confidence in good faith dialogue and earnest expressions of all types of beliefs. 

Maybe then we’ll be ready to hire Steven Pinker.

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Follow him on X @ollywiseman

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