Letters in response to Jonathan Tobin's “The Mosque and the Mythical Backlash.”
To the Editor:
While Jonathan Tobin rightly points to the arrogance of the elites who smear any critic of “Islamism as well as groups like CAIR” as a bigot, he ignores the larger and more important question of whether mainstream Islam can be subjected to criticism [“The Mosque and the Mythical Backlash,” October]. The overwhelming majority of Americans and Europeans see past the politicians and pundits pontificating on what is or is not Islam to the quotidian barbarities of many Muslim-majority societies. These go beyond Islamism’s scheme to re-establish the Caliphate, to ordinary Muslim belief and practice. In other words, why should we be held as bigots for concluding that the problem with Islam is Islam? This is the question that should be engaged but is ignored, while the pundits continue to talk past each other.
Jack M. Rice
Long Beach, California
To the Editor:
I’d like to add to Jonathan Tobin’s analysis of the supposed “anti-Muslim bias” in America. The popular accusation is part of a behavioral tradition that exploits the West’s human-rights culture and has accelerated from the 1960s onward.
Adherents to this paradigm embrace victimhood either when Arab states are failing or when Jews are succeeding. Yasir Arafat and the PLO exploited this superbly, realizing that media propaganda was going to serve them better than terrorism. Ironically, the Israelis, who understand this paradigm far better than the others, have not responded to it effectively. They have adopted a defiant and unapologetic posture and, thus, lost the propaganda war.
The victimization model has become ingrained in the way many Muslim groups operate worldwide. They claim mistreatment even when facts and statistics don’t bear out their charges. Always expect a special Western sensitivity toward the feelings of Muslims, but never expect the same sensitivity toward other groups, particularly Jews.
The appropriate response to the proposed Islamic Center at Ground Zero is to ask that Muslim communities show sensitivity toward the victims of the terrorist atrocity and build elsewhere. The fact that all 19 hijackers were Muslim is not a coincidence: their religious conviction served as a rationale for the attacks. The response from disgusted Muslims should be vocal, public, and ongoing. The “moderates” should show the sensitivity they expect to be shown them. After all, extremists are committing murder in the name of their common religion.
Johannesburg, South Africa
To the Editor:
Jonathan Tobin’s brilliant article exposes the straw-man discourse that has been foisted on the American public by a politically correct ruling class and utilized adroitly by President Obama.
In 2006, five years after 9/11, Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope was published. In it he writes, “In the wake of 9/11, my meetings with Arab and Pakistani Americans, for example, have a more urgent quality, for the stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging. … They need specific assurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.”
In fact, five years after 9/11, America had not set up internment camps nor was there any reason to conclude such a re-enactment would ever occur. For years, then-President Bush defended moderate Muslims and admonished the American people not to show them hostility. Moreover, Obama’s refusal to publicly discuss the relationship between Islam and terrorism has caused more harm than good. Contrary to Obama’s take on the “he who shall not be named” enemy, Bush’s clear identification of radical Islamic terrorists as the bad guys reinforced the distinction between moderate Muslims and our enemies.
As Tobin so beautifully writes, America’s goodness is now being used against her.
King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
Jonathan Tobin writes:
Jack Rice believes that the problem with the Ground Zero mosque debate was not so much the way all critics of the project were wrongly branded as bigots but with the idea that any criticism of Islam, especially mainstream Islam, is itself illegitimate. Certainly mainstream Islam, at least as it has been articulated by leading “moderate” Muslim countries in the Middle East and some of the supposed “moderates” in this country, must be held responsible for the way it has failed to address the threat of Islamism. Indeed, rather than facing up to the necessity of confronting the Islamists, too many Muslims are content merely to pretend that this faction is a minuscule minority rather than a potent threat. This is a dangerous fiction that many in the Western media and political establishment have wrongly treated as an article of faith. Minimizing the true scope of the threat has had the unfortunate effect of blurring the lines between Islamists and other Muslims, establishing a trend that serves the interests of the radicals.
Moreover, when one considers the way any critique of Islam—be it the virulent polemics of Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders or the gentle satire of Molly Norris, the Seattle Weekly cartoonist who was forced to go into hiding after her “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” contest drew death threats—has been treated, it’s clear that the real problem is not the mythical wave of Islamophobia that is oppressing American Muslims, as discussed in my article. Rather, it is the violent intolerance of the Muslim world for anything that smacks of disrespect or even dissent.
However, it is one thing to look clearly at Islam’s problems without prejudice, and it is quite another to damn all Muslims as irretrievably hostile to the West for all time. As I wrote, most Americans have sensibly rejected the latter stance. Such an approach smacks of a prejudicial desire to label an entire group as an enemy rather than to attempt to understand which elements in that group are or are not prepared to live in peace with non-Muslims or to accept a non-Muslim state like Israel in the Middle East. Just as important, such a stance transforms the already difficult task of fighting Islamists in places like Iraq and Afghanistan into hopeless causes. A refusal to understand that many Muslims do not wish to be governed by al-Qaeda or the Taliban and will, if pushed to it, join forces with Americans to fight these tyrannical forces is just as mindless as a blanket denial of the lethal nature of the Islamist threat.
SC Weiss is correct to point out that a key to understanding the Ground Zero mosque debate is to note the way in which the project’s supporters have claimed the mantle of victimhood. The lack of objective proof for this assertion of victimization has not stopped Muslim groups, and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media, from seizing the initiative in this discussion. Rather than show sensitivity toward the 9/11 survivors and their relatives, the underlying point of the planned Islamic Center is to shift the focus from their suffering onto the supposed travails of an American Muslim population that has, in fact, been left in peace by their neighbors.
The failure of Israel to adequately tell the story of its own victims of terror is a separate topic. But that failure has as much to do with anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic prejudice on the part of Western critics of that country as it does with an Israeli unwillingness or inability to play the victim card.
I thank Lynne Lechter for her generous comments and agree that President Obama’s lack of moral clarity about the threat of Islamist terrorism has needlessly complicated both the struggle against the terrorists and given credibility to those who have spawned the myth of a backlash against American Muslims.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?