Ambassador Tareq M.A.M. Albanai of Kuwait
Ambassador Tareq M.A.M. Albanai of Kuwait

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — Kuwait’s ambassador to the United Nations, Tareq M.A.M. Albanai, says he is “truly disappointed” that his opportunity “was taken away” to speak in Westport last week.

Asked by the Westport Journal to comment on what Westport Library officials call a “postponement” of Albanai’s scheduled UN Day address on Oct. 24, the Kuwaiti embassy issued the following statement on the ambassador’s behalf:

“I was disappointed to hear that the talk was ‘postponed.’

“I received the invitation to speak on UN Day at Westport Library in July 2023 and I personally viewed it as an opportunity to share with everyone my love for the United Nations and all it stands for and to jointly and transparently discuss ways to build bridges and explore paths to a better future for all, both within communities and between nations. 

“I am truly disappointed that this opportunity was taken away.”

Albanai had been scheduled to deliver this year’s Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen Memorial Lecture at the library, partnering with United Nations Association of Southwestern Connecticut, in observance of United Nations Day on Oct. 24.

The late Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, a Westporter who founded the area UN Association, for years helped forge local ties with the United Nations and its officials. In recognition of her prominence, the downtown bridge carrying the Post Road over the Saugatuck River is named in her honor.

The library in its only public statement on the issue — two sentences on its website — said the ambassador’s appearance was postponed and that it would try to reschedule the program. 

Decision criticized

Critics have compared the decision to an act of censorship, which they find particularly troublesome for an institution that states, also on its website, it “is committed to “strengthening the community through dynamic interaction and the lively exchange of ideas.”

A letter to the Journal, published Oct. 22 from Larry Weisman, faults the library’s decision to call off the ambassador’s speech, saying it “reveals a tolerance for censorship and/or prejudice which reflects poorly on it and on the Westport community.”

Others who commented on Weisman’s letter all were critical of the library.

Some questioned whether pressure from donors influenced the decision by library officials. Others found the decision an ironic slight to the legacy of Ruth Steinkraus Cohen while international flags were posted, at the same time, along the bridge named in her honor. Others wanted to know the role of unnamed town officials in calling off the speech. And others said it was a missed opportunity for Westporters to hear — and challenge — the diplomatic representative of an Arab nation that does not recognize Israel.

Executive director responds

The Westport Journal, seeking a more complete explanation of the library’s decision to postpone Albanai’s speech, posed 10 questions forwarded to William Harmer, the library’s executive director.

Harmer’s complete response follows: 

“The postponement of the speaker event was a result of the recent developments in the Middle East. Given the sensitivity and rapidly evolving nature of the situation, we believed it was in the best interest of the greater Westport community to postpone this particular talk to a more suitable time. 

“It’s important to note that this decision was not made surreptitiously but after thorough consideration, involving various stakeholders. The choice to postpone the event was arrived at following discussions with our board president; event collaborator, the United Nations Association of Southwestern Connecticut; local officials; interfaith leaders; and members of the local community. In addition, we sought input from town and police officials to ensure that our decision was well-informed.”

The library also added that, with the UNA of Southwestern Connecticut, it will try to reschedule the program.

Questions remain

The statement, however, does not address several questions that Harmer was specifically asked, particularly avoiding any mention of whether pressure from donors forced the speech to be cancelled Oct. 24.

If influence exerted by donors was a contributing factor to the decision, it would appear to violate the library policy, applicable to staff and trustees, that states: “The acceptance by the Library of a donation from any donor does not signify Library support or acceptance of that donor’s personal views, nor does it grant the donor any rights or influence with respect to the Library’s collection, programming, or other operations.”

Also not addressed in Harmer’s statement, although the Journal asked, is which town and police officials specifically were consulted in advance of the decision to postpone the speech.

And, though asked, he did not say whether the decision was made “in response to a specific threat, or as a way to avoid unspecified disruptions or demonstrations?”

United Nations Association reacts

Asked to comment on the controversy, Bill Hass, the president of the United Nations Association of Southwestern Connecticut, which with the library had arranged for Albanai’s speech, said in a statement:

“I regret the decision taken by the library last week to postpone our joint event featuring the Ambassador of Kuwait to the United Nations, as many in our community were looking forward to hearing his message on the role of creative diplomacy in addressing global problems.

”At the same time, I do not believe this decision was taken lightly. Strong emotions have been generated in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel, the war underway in Gaza and the danger of a widening conflict. I am confident that, subject to the availability of the Ambassador, the library will join us in rescheduling this event once tensions have eased.”

Hass added that he is hopeful about rescheduling the ambassador’s speech, although he admitted that is unlikely to happen any time in the immediate future.

A different controversy handled differently

The Westport Library’s response to the planned speech by Ambassador Tareq M.A.M. Albanai contrasts when, in 2015, it invited a writer — targeted by Middle East extremists — to speak at the annual Malloy Lecture in the Arts.

The program, featuring Salman Rushdie, who was under a fatwa, or death edict, from the religious leader of Iran, went forward despite concerns about safety after it was moved to Staples High School to accommodate a crowd of about 1,000 people registered to attend, according to press accounts at the time.

Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses,” prompted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue the fatwa because he and other Muslims considered it to be blasphemous.

Some parents told school officials they felt Rushdie’s appearance would jeopardize the safety of Staples and its students as a result of backlash from terrorists.

But then-Supt. of Schools Elliot Landon stood by the decision to host Rushdie at the high school.

However, security for Rushdie’s appearance at Staples was tight, with police officers stationed in the auditorium, around the school’s perimeter and on the roof, according to reports by the former news website, WestportNow. Others patrolled the premises with bomb-sniffing dogs.

The program, nonetheless, went forward without incident.

Acknowledging the complaints prompted by his appearance, Rushdie “took the opportunity to assail all types of censorship due to ‘a series of traps because of sensitivity,’ ” according to a report by the former news website, WestportNow.

The writer earlier in the day met with a group of Staples advanced placement English literature students, and after his speech, he autographed books for lecture attendees.

Last year, however, an appearance by Rushdie did not proceed as smoothly. He was attacked and seriously injured as he prepared to give a lecture in Chautauqua, N.Y., by a 24-year-old man who later told the New York Post he stabbed the writer because he considers the writer’s beliefs an attack on Islam.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.