Commentary Magazine


"How Dare You Defame Islam"

The problem began in January 1989. That was when Muslims living in Bradford, England, decided to do something to show their anger about The Satanic Verses, a new novel by the famed writer Salman Rushdie that included passages making fun of the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslims, mostly Pakistani immigrants, purchased a copy of the novel, took it to a public square, attached it to a stake, and set it on fire. Television news showed this auto da fé in scandalized detail, and pictures of the scene were splashed across the British media for days, making it a major topic of discussion throughout the country.

In Pakistan itself, after a month’s buildup, an unruly mob of some 10,000 anti-Rushdie protesters took to the streets of the capital city of Islamabad. Marching to the American Cultural Center (a fact significant in itself), they attempted with great energy, but without success, to set the heavily fortified building on fire. Six people died in the violence, and many more were injured.

These events, in turn, caught the attention of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary ruler of Iran, who took prompt and drastic action: on February 14, 1989, he called upon “all zealous Muslims quickly to execute” not just Salman Rushdie as the author of The Satanic Verses but “all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content.” This edict led to emergency measures in England to protect Rushdie’s person, and to weeks and months of intense debate among the world’s politicians and intellectuals about the issues of freedom of speech and blasphemy.

When the dust settled, Khomeini had failed in his specific goal of eliminating Rushdie physically: today, over a decade later, the author is once again writing well-received books and accepting literary awards. But if Khomeini did not manage to harm Rushdie, he did accomplish something far more profound: he stirred the souls of many Muslims, reviving a sense of confidence in their faith and a strong impatience with any denigration of it, as well as a determination to take the offensive against anyone perceived to be a blasphemer or even a critic. Although Khomeini himself passed from the scene just weeks after issuing his decree, the spirit it engendered is very much alive.

_____________

 

During the decade since 1989, many efforts have been undertaken by the forces of Islamism—otherwise known as Muslim fundamentalism—to silence critics. Ranging from outright violence to more sophisticated but no less effective techniques, they have produced impressive results.

Some early acts of physical intimidation involved the Rushdie case itself. Translators of The Satanic Verses were stabbed and seriously injured in Norway and Italy and, in Japan, murdered. In Turkey, another translator escaped when a fire set in his hotel failed to kill him, but 37 others died in the blaze. Other acts of violence were designed to punish both Muslims and non-Muslims for a variety of alleged offenses.

Egypt alone offers a number of examples. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, a professor of literature who wrote that certain references in the Qur’an to supernatural phenomena should be read as metaphors, found his marriage dissolved by an Egyptian court on the grounds that his writings proved him an apostate. (According to Islamic law, a Muslim woman may not be married to a non-Muslim.) Another case involved the author of a nonconformist essay on Islam: he, his publisher, and the book’s printer were each sentenced to eight years in jail on the charge of blasphemy. Farag Foda, an Egyptian intellectual who expressed scorn for the Islamist program, was shot and murdered. And Naguib Mahfouz, the elderly and much-celebrated Nobel Prize laureate for literature, was seriously injured in Cairo when an assailant knifed him in the neck, presumably in revenge for an allegorical novel written decades earlier.

Nor has the campaign been limited to Muslim-majority countries. Makin Morcos, also an Egyptian, was killed in Australia for criticizing the Islamists’ anti-Christian campaign in his native country; Rashad Khalifa, a biochemist from Egypt living in Tucson, Arizona, was stabbed to death in January 1990 to silence his heretical ideas. (A member of Usama bin Laden’s gang has been implicated in the latter murder.) Both these incidents sent a chilling message: you can run but you cannot hide.

_____________

 

Nor, finally, is the campaign in Western countries limited to violence or threats of violence against Muslims; it also extends to non-Muslims. In some cases, purely private matters may be at issue: Jack Briggs, an Englishman, has been on the lam for years, hiding with his wife from her Pakistani family who have vowed to kill both of them (even though they are properly married and even though he converted to Islam to win their approval). Other cases concern publicly expressed views: Steven Emerson, a former Senate aide and investigative reporter for U.S. News & World Report, CNN, and other media, received death threats for Jihad in America, his award-winning television documentary that drew on the Islamists’ own commercial videos to demonstrate their virulently anti-Semitic and anti-American views and activities.

Emerson told his story to a congressional committee in 1998, and it bears quoting at length:

Immediately following the release of Jihad in America, I became the target of radical fundamentalist groups throughout the United States (and internationally) who fiercely denied the existence of “Islamic extremism” and accused me of engaging in an “attack against Islam.” For this “transgression,” my life has been permanently changed.

Explaining the details of just one incident—to pick among a whole series—will help you understand the changes I have been forced to endure. One morning, in late 1995, I was paged by a federal law-enforcement official. When I returned the call, this official immediately instructed me to head downtown to his office and specifically directed me to take a taxi rather than my car. The urgency in this person’s voice was palpable. When I arrived at the office, I was ushered into a room where a group of other law-enforcement officials was waiting. Within minutes, I found out why I had been summoned: I was told a group of radical Islamic fundamentalists had been assigned to carry out an assassination of me. An actual hit team had been dispatched from another country to the United States. The squad, according to the available intelligence, was to rendezvous with its American-based colleagues located in several U.S. cities. Compounding the jolt of being told about this threat was an additional piece of information: the assassination squad had been successfully able to elude law-enforcement surveillance.

I was told that I had limited choices: since I was not a full-time government employee, I was not entitled to 24-hour-a-day police protection. However, I could probably get permission to enter the Witness Security Program under the right circumstances. But the prospect of being spirited away and given a new identity was not acceptable to me—especially since that would afford the terrorists a moral victory in having shut me down. Frankly, however, the alternative option was not that attractive either—being on my own and taking my own chances. And yet that for me was the only effective option.

While Emerson remains doggedly on the trail of Islamists, especially those among them who support terrorism, he has for four years been forced to live at a clandestine address, always watching his movements. Like the case of Rashad Khalifa, murdered in Tucson for his views, the case of Steven Emerson suggests that, despite the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom of speech, when it comes to Islam, unapproved thinking can lead to personal danger or even death.

_____________

 

Still, were force the only weapon in the Islamists’ arsenal, their accomplishments would be limited. In the West, at least, violence and physical intimidation can achieve only so much. But, contrary to stereotype, Islamists are hardly all wild-eyed hit men and suicide bombers; in Western countries, many of them are quite at home with computers, well-versed in the latest lobbying techniques, and adept at the game of victimology. Energetic, determined, and skilled, they employ the tools not of physical but rather of intellectual intimidation. Their aim in doing so is to build an inviolate wall around Islam, endowing it with something like the sacrosanct status it enjoys in traditionally Muslim countries.

Islamists of this latter stripe make full use of every recourse available to them in the laws and customs of the Western liberal democracies themselves. A few examples will illustrate. In France, Marcel Lefebvre, a renegade Catholic bishop, was fined nearly $1,000 under French law for declaring that when the Muslim presence in France becomes stronger, “it is your wives, your daughters, your children who will be kidnapped and dragged off to a certain kind of place as they exist in [Morocco].” In Canada, a Christian activist handing out leaflets protesting the Muslim persecution of Christians was accused by Muslim organizations of “inciting hatred,” found guilty of breaking Canada’s hate-speech laws, and sentenced to 240 hours of community service and six months of probation time in jail. At the United Nations, the decidedly non-diplomatic epithets “blasphemy” and “defamation of Islam” have become part of normal discourse, serving as convenient instruments for shutting off discussion of such unpleasant matters as slavery in Sudan or Muslim anti-Semitism.

In the United States, where the concept of freedom of speech is sturdier than elsewhere, the First Amendment still prevents the government itself from fining or jailing anyone for offensive speech. But, relying on the ethos of political correctness that has resulted in such abridgements of First Amendment freedoms as university speech codes and other restrictive practices, Islamists seek to win what sanction they can to censor others. Thus, they have recently sponsored an innocent-sounding Senate resolution entitled “Supporting Religious Tolerance Toward Muslims.” This resolution states as a fact that “Muslims have been subjected, simply because of their faith, to acts of discrimination and harassment that all too often have led to hate-inspired violence,” and concludes that criticism of Islam, though legal in the strict sense, is morally reprehensible (“the Senate acknowledges that individuals and organizations that foster such intolerance create an atmosphere of hatred and fear that divides the Nation”). Should this resolution pass, and there is every reason to expect that it will, anyone with anything negative to say about Islam or Islamism can expect to be accused of fostering a hate crime.

_____________

 

Who, in the American context, is behind this campaign of mental intimidation and of what, in a journalistic context, would be called prior restraint? Among the many candidates, the leading one is surely the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based institution founded in 1994. CAIR presents itself to the world as a standard-issue civil-rights organization, whose mission is to “promote interest and understanding among the general public with regard to Islam and Muslims in North America and conduct educational services.”

Sometimes, indeed, this is what CAIR does. In 1997, for example, it protested when an official at a meeting of a board of education in South Carolina said, “Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims.” At other times, it has come to the defense of women who have lost their jobs for insisting on wearing a headscarf, or of men for wearing beards. But these occasional good works serve mostly as a cover for CAIR’s real agenda, which appears to be twofold: to help the radical organization Hamas in its terror campaign against Israel, and to promote the Islamist program in the United States.

In furtherance of the first goal, CAIR regularly sends out “action alerts” to instigate dozens or even hundreds of protests, many of them vulgar and aggressive, whenever anyone dares to suggest publicly that Hamas or other terrorist networks operate in the United States, or indeed dares to support those who say such things. When Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, protested CAIR’s almost successful effort to have Steven Emerson blacklisted from National Public Radio, CAIR cranked up its letter-writing campaign (“Dear JEW,” went a characteristic missive from a CAIR minion, “How dare you defame Islam. . . . There is enough Muslim-bashing going on, I am sure your resigning will not make a difference to our Jewish [sic] media”) and, in a bit of raw intimidation, threatened the Globe with legal action.

CAIR’s defense of Islamist violence takes other forms as well: picketing the Dallas Morning News for revealing the Hamas infrastructure in Texas, launching a campaign against the Tampa Tribune for uncovering the Islamic Jihad network in that city. The group has inveighed against the Journal of the American Medical Association for investigating the medical condition of victims of terrorism, and against a children’s magazine, The Weekly Reader’s Current Events, for publishing material on international terrorism. CAIR denounced the Atlantic Monthly for publishing an article on Islamist violence in Sudan, and a Senate Subcommittee for holding a hearing on “Foreign Terrorists in America: Five Years After the World Trade Center Bombing.”

_____________

 

As for its other goal—promoting Islamism in the United States—CAIR focuses on the single tactic of trying to silence those who have anything critical to say about Islam. It attacked the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles for portraying Ayatollah Khomeini as a Hitler-like enemy of Jews, and it went after the Reader’s Digest for documenting the repression of Christians in several Muslim countries. When James Jatras, a Senate aide, published in his private capacity a stinging critique of Islam (“a self-evident outgrowth not of the Old and New Covenants but of the darkness of heathen Araby”), CAIR took out a full-page newspaper ad in the Washington Times calling for his dismissal. And when Father Richard John Neuhaus, the distinguished author and editor of First Things, outspokenly condemned contemporary Islam’s “resentments and suspicions, alternating with low-grade jihad in the form of the persecution of Christians, international terrorism, and dreams of driving Israel into the sea,” CAIR called on the Catholic Church to “investigate” Neuhaus, and its supporters sent a cascade of abusive mail accusing him of being “obviously mentally ill” and “doing the work of Adolf Hitler.”

Even lesser provocations than these elicit a barrage of CAIR-inspired letters that can leave writers and editors feeling isolated and under siege. A case in point indirectly involves the Oslo peace process. Beginning in May 1995, Yasir Arafat, having entered into negotiations with Israel, took to defending himself before Arab audiences by alluding cryptically to the treaty of Hudaybiyah, signed by the Prophet Muhammad in 628 C.E. Dusting off their history books, American commentators mostly concluded that, in invoking an agreement signed but then subsequently broken by Muhammad when circumstances changed, Arafat was signaling that he, too, did not really mean to keep his pledge. Arafat’s intentions aside, however, it was the suggestion that the Prophet Muhammad had gone back on his word that aroused CAIR’s fury. So impassioned was the reaction when Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, referred in a column to “the doctrine of the prophet Muhammad of making treaties with enemies while he is weak, violating them when he is strong,” that the magazine ended up printing not one but two apologies.

A flavor of what CAIR and its network of letter writers were capable of producing on this occasion may be gleaned from the pages of the New Republic, where a similar statement had been made by Yehoshua Porath, an eminent professor of Middle East history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This statement (“Muhammad broke the [Hudaybiya] agreement eighteen months after its conclusion”) elicited, according to the magazine’s editors, “hundreds of abusive phone calls, letters, and e-mail accusing us of defamation of the Prophet and worse.” Among the letters published by the editors, all in their original grammar and spelling, one read:

You guys had better watch out, ok? Because this is not going to go on further anymore, ok? You’d better watch out that f*ing Jew . . . tell him where he is coming from, ok? Because you know mother-f*er bastard, mother—his mom is a bastard, ok? He can’t talk about Muslim shit and you get your act together . . . all of you. We don’t want to hear anymore about this problem, ok? You got that right?

Another was more threatening:

The jews from back in history were the ugly decievers and BLOOD SUCKERS. . . . It is importatn that an apology is issued to calm down the MUSLIM all over the world. WE DO NO WANT TO SEE ANOTHER 19 AMERICANS GO A WSAY IN THA LAND OF THE PROPHET ,,, DO WE ??????? !!!!!! I am saying this because the Muslims will never tolerate the actions of the jews agains their religion. And articels like these contribute in the future loss of life of Anmericans all over the Islamic world. . . . We are fed up of filthy jews robbing our lands, and defaming all HOLY concepts we have. Please, save the lives of few Americans by issuing your apology.

Which brings me to my own case. In mid-1999, I published articles in the Los Angeles Times and the National Post (Toronto) emphasizing the distinction between, on the one hand, traditional Muslims who go quietly about their business and ask only to be allowed to practice their faith, and, on the other, radical Islamists with their agenda of transforming society in the image of their beliefs. In reply, CAIR launched fifteen separate attacks on me in the space of two months. Many of these, reaching all the way back to 1983, cited random quotations from articles and books in order to indict me out of my own mouth, or resurrected unflattering appraisals of my work by others. One bulletin attempted to demolish an article I had written about the treaty of Hudaybiya—even though, contrary to other American commentators, I had found that “Muhammad was technically within his rights to abrogate the treaty.” The broadside was titled “Daniel Pipes Smears Prophet Muhammad”: fighting words for many Muslims.

Reverberating through the Internet, CAIR’s attacks were also widely reprinted in Muslim publications, spurring dozens of letters, overwhelmingly negative, to the two newspapers that had carried my articles. One such letter urged me to enroll in sensitivity training (at CAIR, naturally), while others branded me with harsh names (“bigot and racist”), compared me to the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis, or characterized my writings as an “atrocity” filled with “pure poison” and “outright lies.” More alarmingly, the letters accused me either of perpetrating a hate crime against Muslims or of promoting and abetting such crimes. And they did not stop short of vague threats: “Is Pipes ready to answer the Creator for his hatred or is he a secular humanist. . . ? He will soon find out.”

_____________

 

I do not want to leave the impression that CAIR represents the only opinion to be found in the Muslim community, either here or abroad. Shaykh Abdad Hadi Palazzi, for instance, secretary general of the Italian Muslim Association and director of the Cultural Institute of the Italian Muslim Community in Rome, has actually denounced CAIR for falsely claiming to represent the entire Muslim community while in reality being bent on launching “hate campaigns against journalists, Congressmen, Senators, and Muslims who interfere with [its] true terrorist agenda.” What is more, Shaykh Palazzi has commended both me and Steven Emerson for daring to challenge the Islamists; though he does “not agree with [our] attitude toward Islam in particular and with [our] secular worldview in general,” nevertheless we are to be lauded for distinguishing “authentic Islam from the counterfeit image presented by the Islamists”—of whom, the Shaykh pointedly concludes, Muslims themselves “are the main victims.”

But Shaykh Palazzi is one among only a few voices of reason and sanity. Within the universe of Muslims who speak and write about Islam and its position in the modern world, the Islamists by far have the upper hand. That is not only a great tragedy for Muslims, but a danger to the rest of us. For if the Islamists have their way, any possibility of speaking the truth not only about them but about Islam itself will be foreclosed. Indeed, to a certain extent, as in the near-successful blacklisting of Steven Emerson at National Public Radio, it already has been.

Bernard Lewis, the renowned scholar of Islam and the Middle East, has noted with asperity that whereas, in this Christian country, an English-language biographer of Jesus enjoys total latitude to say what he will and as he will, his counterpart working on a biography of Muhammad must look fearfully over his shoulder every step of the way. About my own writing, one correspondent protested to the National Post: “It’s is interesting to me as a Muslim American to hear you, a non-Muslim, speaks about Islam as an expert without you first consulting with an American Muslim organization like CAIR for an example, to get their opinion about what you are about to print.” In other words, one is perfectly free to voice an opinion about Islam, provided that one has vetted its contents beforehand with the Islamists—roughly the situation that now prevails in Iran.

What the Islamists are demanding, in short, is that the United States take a giant step toward applying within its borders the strictures of Islamic law (the shari’a) itself. A basic premise of that body of law is that no one, and especially no non-Muslim, may openly discuss certain subjects—some of the very subjects, as it happens, that CAIR wishes to render taboo. However absurd this may seem to a casual observer—Muslims, after all, make up, at most, 2 percent of the U.S. population—it is a fact that, when the guard of the democratic majority is let down, determined minorities in pursuit of antidemocratic aims can sometimes get their way.

_____________

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.