Interfaith event sparks misunderstanding, goes viral

The April 26 interfaith event was organized as an opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue. Jake Johnson/PSU

Portland State hosted a panel of six students from different religious backgrounds titled “Unpacking Misconceptions” on Wednesday, April 26, 2017 in the basement of Smith Memorial Student Union. A Muslim student who organized the interfaith event and spoke on the panel said he intended it to be an opportunity to convene with people from diverse religious backgrounds, humanize these varying perspectives and educate one another through mutual understanding.

“On a daily basis you interact with people of different religions,” the event organizer said.* “You say hi to them, but instead of asking those people about their religions and beliefs, we rely on the media to teach us about what these people we work with believe. The interfaith event was designed to be a place to share, not debate, personal beliefs with others from different backgrounds. People have misconceptions about what other people believe, and this event was intended to be a productive place to unpack those ideas with fellow students.”

The student organizer made several remarks while on the panel, though a specific comment in response to an audience question has been widely shared on social media and later criticized by far-right media outlet Breitbart.

In spite of outside misconception, faiths unite against killing

During a question and answer portion of the event, the event organizer responded to a question.

A Christian member of the audience asked the organizer to clarify a specific part of the Quran that states killing an innocent person is like killing all of humanity. The audience member wanted to know how the organizer, a Muslim, would respond to rumors that this message refers to Muslims killing Muslims and that non-Muslims, “I suppose the term would be infidels,” were not included in the innocents mentioned.

“So, I can confidently tell you, when the Quran says an innocent life, it means an innocent life, regardless of the faith, the race, like, whatever you can think about as a characteristic,” the organizer stated. “And some, this, that you’re referring to, killing non-Muslims, that is only considered a crime when the country’s law, the country is based on Quranic law—that means there is no other law than the Quran. In that case, you’re given the liberty to leave the country, you can go in a different country, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. So you can on a different country, but in a Muslim country, in a country based on the Quranic laws, disbelieving, or being an infidel, is not allowed so you will be given the choice.”

The organizer looked to a Muslim audience member for clarification, who went up to the stage.

“About the part where [you] do not befriend Christians and in Muslim countries I’ve come to believe that is allowed, to have different faiths,” the audience member asserted.

He referenced an agreement between the founder of the Muslim Nation of Medina and Jewish people to work together in the event of an attack.

He went on to speak of the massacres of ISIS, a group he said he believes is not Muslim. “You have to look at why are there Christians in Syria and Egypt and these countries in the Levant region that have been under Muslim rule for the last thousand five hundred, four hundred, years,” he said.  “It’s because non-Muslims were allowed to live there, so it’s perfectly okay for non-Muslims to live in Muslim lands and…it’s absolutely not allowed to harm them or anything like that.”

The panel’s Christian representative, Risto Rushford also responded to a question about a second-choice religion.

“I look for wisdom wherever I can find it,” Rushford said. “Sometimes I find it reading things that were written from an existential humanist, sometimes I find it from people who come from a Muslim background or from a Hindu background. I have discovered great insights from Muhammad Yunus; he wrote a book called Banker to the Poor.”

Widely shared video clip leaves out event context

A video clip featuring only a portion of the organizer’s quote that addressed the Quranic law about non-believers or infidels being “given a choice” has been shared on Twitter and Facebook without the preceding and following context. This comment from the organizer, widely shared out of context was met with significant criticism by audience members who accessed it through social media and right-leaning media outlets.

Video clips of the event organizers quote received criticism when taken out of context. Via Twitter


Another panelist, Benjamin Ramey, the representative secular humanist, also of Freethinkers, replied to the original tweet.

“As one of the panelists present at this event I would like to say that this speech is not taken out of context,” Ramey tweeted.

PSU Assistant Professor of Philosophy Peter Boghossian contributed to the Twitter conversation as well.

“The same people who want to punch ‘Nazis’ are completely silent when it comes to certain people advocating mass murder,” Boghossian wrote.

Event organizer responds

The event organizer responded to this controversy by stating he had a feeling he may have misspoke and sought clarification from the audience member, as seen in a second video from the event.

He noted that when the event began, one integral agreement about the panel was the understanding that none of the panelists are experts.

“I thought I would feel proud after putting something like this together,” the event organizer said while shaking his head. “Not feel like this.”

He expressed concern for his safety and for how the misinterpretation and misrepresentation could affect his family and community.

The general tone of the event itself was very different from the critical response to the shared video clip.

Jill Townley, associate director of the International Student Life Team at PSU, has worked with international students for the last 20 years. Townley moderated the Interfaith event and was excited about the safe place it provided for religious students.

“[Religious] international students feel compartmentalized and not authentic,” Townley said. “[The interfaith event allowed students] to talk about spiritual beliefs in a safe place which is really beneficial. They can differ in a respectful way.”

*As a result of the controversy surrounding portions of this event, the student asked that his name be omitted in the interest of safety

Editor’s Note: The video clip mentioned in this article was originally shared on the personal social media accounts of a former editor and contributor to the Vanguard who is no longer working for the organization. While these clips were not produced or distributed by the Vanguard, the organization and its members have a responsibility to uphold ethical standards on all fronts. 

It is our assessment that this video clip was published and shared without context in a way that placed a PSU student in significant danger. As members of the PSU community, we are compelled to protect and support this student and urge readers to consider the explanatory nature of these comments and recognize the event’s intent to foster inclusion and understanding. What could have been a dialogue of mutual understanding became a source of pain and fear for some of those involved.

The Vanguard is committed to minimizing harm and providing context that takes special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story, as per the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.  

Markedly biased media outlets have featured the event organizer’s comments without necessary context. The Vanguard does not endorse, condone or support the way this student was represented by said media outlets. We vehemently reject any association with this type of dangerous misrepresentation.



  1. Peter Boghossian is an assistant professor, not an associate professor, that is, he does not have tenure. He is, if memory serves, not even tenure track. While this difference in rank ultimately amounts to very little, I wanted to offer the correction.

  2. PSU Vanguard How about instead of trying to brush the persecution of millions of #ExMuslims under the rug use your platform to host a conversation on what Muslims can do to change anti-Exmuslim attitudes in their communities as well as reform laws in their origin-countries?

    Over a dozen Muslim countries outlaw disbelief, many more have blasphemy laws.

    High percentages of Muslims in Pakistan, Egypt and other major muslim countries believe #ExMuslims should be murdered.

    This should be used as a teachable moment to change Muslim attitudes not silence the conversation. It does a disservice to Muslims when instead of appealing to the better angels of their nature and urge to them to do better we cover up problems.

  3. This kind of behaviour, banning an opinion or firing people expressing an opinion, because it could be used by the wrong kinds of people, is actually the most harmful to minorities that you can possibly imagine. It gives fodder to the right-wing conspiracy theorists, because now they can claim: “See?! If we criticize Islam or just report on it objectively, we get punished!” From there it’s not a stretch to start conspiracy theories about leftists in bed with islamists, when reporting objectively on something is having this result. Especially because what the panelist actually said, was actually implying, that you “have a choice”, that it’s not really oppression, but a legitimate system for muslims. The audience member was also denying persecution and discrimination in past islamic systems (such as the dhimmi system) and present ones. So that is pretty much something that SHOULD be criticized and publicized in general.
    It ultimately also results in a situation, where the only ones who are allowed to talk about an issue, are the wrong kinds of people, because the right kinds of people will be punished for reporting facts, that the wrong kinds of people might use for hate. And what does that result into? Into the wrong kinds of people gaining the monopoly on this topic.

    You are not helping minorities, if you ban reporting on their flaws. Because then you give the wrong impression, that there is something that is being covered up, making right-wingers feel like they are right all along in that these minorities are a threat. Firing Mr Ngo for having the bad luck of having reported on something that the far-right was also interested in, is in bad taste, he’s not responsible for that.

    And last but not least:
    The Prophet Mohammed’s theocratic community in the city of Medina was not a “muslim nation of Media”. By framing it so weirdly it gives the impression, that the authors don’t really know what they are talking about.

  4. And what is the true context? The Muslim guy on the panel said it. And you punish the messenger who recorded it?


    Fake news is much more comfortable, isn’t it?

    • This so called newspaper cannot accept the truth and is only interested in leftist spin. Fake news indeed.

  5. This is so incredibly embarrassing. Surely you knew that the negative impact of this ‘misunderstanding’ would only be magnified exponentially if you went ahead and fired, without rational justification, the person who filmed the clip?
    You talk about the dangers of lending succour to obnoxious right-wing websites and yet you are so hooked on the idea that all Muslims are automatically victims(BTW, that must be really empowering for Muslim students) that it blinded you to the fact that you were handing a PR victory on a plate to every conservative news outlet in America.
    I think you are decent people, but this is a moment in time when some soul-searching would be in order with regards to some of the dogma that has hardened on the left over the last thirty years. It’s not enough to carry on regardless when the far-right is on the ascendance all over the world; and balkanising everyone in society according to the grand, platonic Flowchart Of Oppression, so that certain whole groups of voters are considered politically unworthy, is a guaranteed way of consigning liberalism to the dustbin for a very long time.
    Get a grip – look at what you’ve done in this case. Does it trouble your conscience in the slightest? Do you think it represented liberalism or leftism at its best? Even if you answered ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively ask yourself this – was it a good move from a tactical point of view?

  6. I fail to see how this so called full context you have provided us changes our understanding of the situation in any significant way. It is apparent to me and I suspect a great many others that the Muslim panellist said what he meant and meant what he said. More importantly, I think he spoke truthfully, giving a valid interpretation of the way that many Islamists see a state that adheres to Quranic Law being properly administered. In no small numbers, sections of the Muslim world believe that Infidels should be heavily taxed, pressured to convert, forced to leave the country or among the most extreme, outright killed.

    As the gentleman from the audience suggested, non-Muslims have been tolerated to varying degrees at various times throughout history in majority Muslim countries. In some interpretations of the Quranic text there are provisions made so that non-Muslims can coexist alongside Muslims within a country subject to Islamic rule, but these non-Muslim minorities are still subject to the strictures of laws derived from an ancient text that is supposedly eternally binding. Today, given the unrest and the regimes that are in power in many parts of the Middle East, religious and ethnic minority groups are under great threat. This is the truth no matter who you ultimately blame for the current state of affairs.

    I understand that in reacting the way you have, you believe you are acting out of compassion, empathy and a concern for the safety and security of a fellow man, a man belonging to both a religious and racial minority group no less. I can also appreciate that you would want to take a moral stance, not wanting others to see you as someone who would tolerate the inevitable bigoted bile that will have been directed at the man in question after the story was picked up by right wing media outlets. I simply entreat you to not allow your empathetic instincts to be hijacked, where your motivation to do good and to be good becomes a justification to behave in fundamentally unjust ways.

    The problem with we humans is that we are not dispassionate, purely rational beings. When it comes to matters of real consequence to us, we are prone to having powerful instant emotional reactions, falling back on prior programming (well integrated ideological precepts) and then finding clever ways to rationalise and justify our subsequent actions.

    One man spoke the truth, another man shared that truth and the Vanguard decided that one man deserved its protection, and the other man was to be punished.

  7. PSU Vanguard, this is shameful and embarrassing, bending over backward to make sure Islam is not shown in a negative light. The Muslim student said what he said…now you are trying to explain what he ACTUALLY meant? Maybe he meant what he said..? And he said it in public filmed forum, and your reporter shared EXACTLY what he said. Period. That is the definition of reporting. You better fix this, apologize to the student journalist and get your act together.

  8. Muslim: “We must kill all infidels!”
    Reporter: “The Muslim said he wanted to kill infidels.”
    School: “What a dangerous statement! You’re fired, reporter.”

  9. Putting aside the progressive fascism wdand blatant bias. How are you this bad at your Job? Breitbart has over 45 million readers. It is the most shared news outlet on social media. The small conservative media outlets and meme-mills repackage its contend constantly. Because of your actions not only could this clip realistically be viewed by close to a hundred million people, it will be accompanied by a story illustrating the almost comically Orwellian example of a left wing conspiracy to suppresses wrong think and problematic facts. The fact that this was not obvious to you means you did not get the education you paid for. You should be suing your school for teaching propaganda and activism and not the basic professional knowledge and skills you need in your chosen profession.

  10. Vanguard is ran by Demcorats who are hateful ruthless people that shix on the 1st Amendment!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. OK, here we have yet another case study in the FAR LEFT doing yet more crazy PC-induced lunacy.

    A.) a student journalist, was fired from his job, for simply showing what a Muslim speaker said, in a video (the same Muslim student who apparently got to organize the event in the first place).

    B.) It is also obvious, that there is a ton of conservative bashing going on, mindlessly at this institution and publication, as the very article above tries to state Breitbart is “far right” (which is proven false.)

    SO, merely showing what a Muslim student stated openly, in front of everyone, is now grounds to fire the journalist who filmed/reported on it? The “context excuse” is 100% an excuse…as the others state, nothing was taken out of context.
    In the comments below the article, in italics, the Vanguard folks write “Markedly biased media outlets”(have featured the event organizer’s comments without necessary context.)

    The only “markedly biased media outlet” I’m seeing in all this, is The Vanguard, which appears to believe that things stated by Muslims are not to be believed, and that reporters who report on what is said, should be fired.

    THIS is Leftist Fascism on full display.

  12. “She said I had “a history” of affiliation with conservative media, and argued that that history was toxic to the “reputation of the Vanguard.”

    That is called discrimination. Conservatives have the same rights as Muslims, Blacks, Liberals and any other group. They are protected as well. Be honest, be fair, be just. Apparently your news paper doesn’t like any of those values.

  13. The Editors note at the end of this post is a joke, but not nearly as much of a joke as the Vanguard is now.
    What the ‘panelist’ reported is a tame version of the reality of what happens in the country and area my family comes from.

    Very dismayed that this ‘newspaper’ would put their twisted world view ahead of what actually goes on.

  14. The Vanguard appears to slant news and fire reporters who attempt to report honestly. I would not hire anyone with a jounalism degree from this college.

  15. “Mutual understanding” or mutual pseudo-kumbaya fantasy in pursuit of a dangerous political agenda?

    Jake Johnson and Colleen Leary, you both ought to be ashamed of yourselves for even using the word “ethics” let alone having the audacity to refer to a journalistic code of ethics, especially since your “safety” concerns don’t seem to extend to all the ex-Muslims who not only face persecution and physical harm in Islamic countries but in the United States as well… perhaps even some of the students at PSU at this very moment.

    But let’s not beat around the bush here… your true intentions are manifest, and all that nonsense about “safety” was just the first excuse you two came up with in time to print this article. Maybe you were thinking of the “Committee of Public Safety” during the French Revolution since your ultimate goal of controlling and/or silencing dissent isn’t all that dissimilar from theirs. Of course, I’m betting that engaging in rampant hypocrisy is nothing new to you two “journalists” though, is it?

    Colleen Leary, if you haven’t gotten the gist of what I’m saying yet due to your inability to see past your own biases when attempting to determine truth, I’m calling you a political hack who has no business working for a government-funded institution and running what is supposed to be the student newspaper representing the ENTIRE student body. As far as you, Jake… you’re either a backboneless accomplice or a fellow traveler, and I’m not sure which of those options reflects more poorly on you both as a person and a “journalist”. Neither paints a picture of someone who possesses an iota of integrity, and it definitely fails to inspire any confidence in you as someone who can be trusted to tell the truth when it really matters.

    You know, it’s a real shame you two weren’t born a century earlier. Both of you would’ve really enjoyed working for one of those propaganda mouthpieces they had in countries like Poland or Czechoslovakia in the mid-20th century. But no matter how hard you and your ilk try to paint those of us who aren’t buying what you’re selling as “fascists” or “right-wing” regardless of where we actually fall on the political spectrum, you’ll never succeed at forcing your worldview on the rest of us no matter how many dishonest shaming tactics you attempt to use against us.


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