How a Peninsula College professor's lectures helped to defuse a Muslim activist through the Internet
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Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
Peninsula College professor Wes Cecil, whose online lectures were credited for an Islamic activist’s conversion to a more reasoned point of view.
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The Associated Press
Ahmed Akkari

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — Online lectures posted by a Peninsula College adjunct professor are credited with aiding in the conversion of a radical Muslim to a broader view, according to reports in a national media outlet.

The Daily Beast, an Internet news source, said Sept. 17 that Ahmed Akkari, who helped incite protest against a series of satirical drawings of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper, has recanted many of his violent positions and has said lectures by Peninsula College's Wes Cecil of Port Townsend contributed to this conversion.

Akkari, 35, is a Danish Muslim who led protests in 2005 against the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which had published 12 representations of Mohammed, whose image is sacred to Muslims.

“But it was a cartoon by artist Kurt Westergaard depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban that would provoke a violent global crisis,” according to The Daily Beast.

Protests led to violence in several countries and resulted in about 200 deaths, according to news reports.

Akkari moved in 2008 to Greenland, where he had time to reflect, according to The Daily Beast.

When he re-emerged this year, he apologized to several of those he had protested against.

He told The Daily Beast that the writings of exiled Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd transformed him and recommended the work of Cecil, whose YouTube videos include disquisitions on Arabic literature, Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida and Simone de Beauvoir.

Cecil, 47, who has worked as an adjunct professor at Peninsula College teaching English and philosophy for 17 years, has not had any personal contact with Akkari and first heard of the former radical's change of heart from a reporter seeking a comment.

“I started doing these public lectures a few years ago as a way to draw people into the college and began posting them on YouTube,” said Cecil, who holds a doctorate in English from Indiana University.

“I have no idea how Akkari found me — probably through the magic of Google,” Cecil said.

At present, 29 of the audio-only one-hour lectures are available on YouTube and viewable at http://tinyurl.com/PDN-Cecil-lectures, including examinations of individual philosophers and discussions of the language, literature and civilization of different cultures.

Cecil will lecture today at 6 p.m. in Room D at the Old Schoolhouse in Fort Worden State Park, beginning this year's series of free lectures on languages and literature.

The subject of tonight's lecture is Russian language, culture and civilization.

Others will be Oct. 17, Nov. 21, Dec. 19, Jan. 16, Feb. 20, March 20, April 17 and May 15.

“My approach is to try to show the great power and humanity that is resident in every great culture, going through history to see what's influenced them and where those influences have come from,” Cecil said.

“The raising of the questions and the raising of the problems seemed to be very helpful to Akkari.”

Cecil said he isn't responsible for Akkari's change of heart.

“Most of the credit has to go to Akkari. He made the leap of deciding to ask questions about his own beliefs,” Cecil said.

“Having the time to be in an isolated place and reduce external pressures can lead to a time of reflection and self-questioning, and it takes a huge effort to make that change,” Cecil added.

“Education always comes from the inside. You cannot educate from the outside in.”

Cecil said the first step toward peaceful coexistence with another country is to understand its culture.

He said the CIA lacked any station chiefs who spoke Arabic prior to the 9/11 terrorism.

“It was a horrible situation that we were so fundamentally ignorant of the culture that we were trying to understand and observe,” he said.

“If we are going to negotiate with Iran, we damn well better understand Persian history if we want to be successful.”

Such understanding of different viewpoints is also necessary domestically, Cecil said.

“Half the country is convinced that anyone who voted for George Bush is either an idiot or venal, and the other half thinks that anyone who voted for Barack Obama is either an idiot or anti-American,” he said.

“But well-meaning, well-informed people voted for both, and we have a hard time conceptualizing that.”

Cecil said a politician's strong ideology can decrease their efficiency.

“Politicians aren't supposed to have ideas,” he said.

“If you believe in an idea, you won't negotiate, and if you won't negotiate, you are not doing politics.”

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 25. 2013 7:16PM
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