|Date: 10 Mar 2005|
Source: New York Sun
Author: Josh Gerstein
A prominent talk show host has canceled a speech to a conference of Indian-American hoteliers after coming under pressure from Muslim organizations and human-rights groups, who said another speaker invited to the meeting has a record of condoning anti-Muslim violence.
The host of MSNBC's "Hardball," Chris Matthews, announced yesterday that he would not appear as planned on March 24 at the Asian- American Hotel Owners Association meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"Due to a scheduling conflict, Chris Matthews has canceled this appearance," an MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, said. He would not elaborate on the nature of the conflict.
In recent days, Muslim activists and others flooded the network with calls, letters, and e-mail urging Mr. Matthews to distance himself from the group. An Indian official billed as the "chief guest" at the meeting, Narendra Modi, has been accused of tolerating anti- Muslim violence in the state of Gujarat, where he is chief minister.
The president of the Indian Muslim Council-USA, Dr. Ashwini Rao of New York, said he does not credit the official explanation for Mr. Matthews's action. "Most likely, that's not correct, because we've been talking to him for the last week and a half, at least, and they've never said it's a scheduling conflict," Dr. Rao said. "I was hoping he'd take a more moral stance."
Mr. Modi has been condemned by various human rights groups for failing to rein in anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 Gujarat residents.
The Indian governor was "directly involved in this pogrom and this hatred," Dr. Rao asserted. He said Mr. Modi espouses a supremacist philosophy known as Hindutva. "This is an ideology that was inspired by Mussolini and Hitler. They want to have the same thing in India, where India is solely for upper-caste Hindus," Dr. Rao said.
Last month, 30 human-rights activists asked Secretary of State Rice to block Mr. Modi's trip to America. They labeled him an "egregious violator" of religious freedom and said he should be barred from the country under a 1998 law, the International Religious Freedom Act. Among the signatories to the letter are the director of the religious freedom program at Freedom House, Nina Shea, and the advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, Thomas Malinowski.
One of those who helped draft the letter pointed out that the human rights violations in Gujarat have been documented in State Department reports. "We're not trying to tell them anything different that they don't already know," an official with the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Benjamin Marsh, said.
Mr. Marsh said that if the 1998 law is used to bar the Indian official, it would be the first time that provision has been used. "We're trying to set a precedent here that Mr. Modi is a perfect example of someone not to let into the country," Mr. Marsh said.
A spokesman for the State Department, Steven Pike, said his agency has a policy of not commenting on visa issues involving specific people. "That is an individual matter between him and the consulate," Mr. Pike said.
An official at the Indian Embassy in Washington referred calls about Mr. Modi's visit to the Indian consulates in New York and Houston. Diplomats there did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Modi is also to make a speech to an Indian-American group in the theater at Madison Square Garden on March 20 before he visits Florida.
"I don't see any reason why he should be stopped to come here," an organizer of the New York event, Sunil Nayak, said in an interview. "The purpose of the trip is strictly business. Basically, he's coming here to let people know what development has taken place in the state of Gujarat."
Mr. Nayak, a hotel owner from New Brunswick, N.J., said Mr. Modi is popular with Indian-Americans in the hospitality business. "Most of the Patels that you have heard of are from the same state," Mr. Nayak said. He noted that the 2002 riots are the subject of continuing litigation in India. "It's an event they are talking about that's three years old. He's innocent until proven guilty," Mr. Nayak said. "He's been elected after the event, so the people have given him the mandate."
Mr. Nayak flatly rejected the claims that Mr. Modi wants to create a state modeled on the Nazi regime. "It's absolutely not true," Mr. Nayak said. "Nazism and Hitler has only been brought in to get Jewish people involved in this."
Mr. Modi's critics are planning protests outside the speeches at New York and Florida.
The treasurer of the hotel owners' group, Dilipkumar Patel of Atlanta, said Mr. Matthews notified the group last Friday of his decision to drop out. "We received a notice from his office: he's going to cancel," Mr. Patel said. "Why did he cancel? We have not even asked him."
A person familiar with the situation said Mr. Matthews did not learn until recently about the other speakers on the conference program.
Mr. Patel said he harbors no ill will toward the fast-talking television host, who was to receive between $45,000 and $50,000 for the speech.
Mr. Patel did express resentment toward Mr. Modi's opponents for attempting to squelch the minister's appearances in America. "It means they are controlling me. They are telling me what to do. They are trying to control my freedom of speech," Mr. Patel said.
In a bizarre and mysterious twist, some in the press corps learned of Mr. Matthews's decision from a Council on American-Islamic Relations news release that was distributed to reporters yesterday via an e-mail list the Pentagon uses to circulate stories about the military.
The Pentagon later issued a statement calling the distribution unintentional and saying it had "taken steps to guard against a recurrence."
A spokesperson for the Islamic group, Rabiah Ahmed, denied that her organization sent the message out through the Pentagon list. "We had nothing to do with it," she said. "Apparently, somebody hacked into their computer system and sent out our press release on their listserv."