After the last several months, it should be clear that the controversy over the Park 51 Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero is about more than sensitivity to the families of the 9/11 victims and the sacredness of the site where their loved ones were murdered. In places as far from Lower Manhattan as Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Temecula, Calif., Muslim houses of worship, and the people who pray in them, have come under attack by conservative activists as representing an American beachhead for Muslim extremism.
Whether it’s Newt Gingrich peddling false stories of “creeping sharia” (strict Islamic law) to an audience of very serious people at the American Enterprise Institute, or the Washington Times running endless editorials and op-eds from conspiracy theorists like Frank Gaffney warning that President Obama “may actually still be a Muslim,” or Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney shamelessly and falsely asserting that Park 51 leader Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has “terror-related connections,” it’s clear that quite a few conservative elites see political profit in stoking Americans’ fear of Islam.
Such hostility toward Muslims is unfortunately not marginal in the pro-Israel community — unless one is prepared to define the huge annual policy conference of one of Washington’s foremost lobbies as “marginal.” At an AIPAC conference in March 2009, to take just one example, terrorism expert Steve Emerson spent 40 minutes stoking the worst fears of the mostly elderly attendees with a talk called “Tentacles of Terror: The Global Reach of Islamic Radicalism.” It could just as easily have been called “Scaring the Living Crap Out of Bubbe and Zayde.” As long as Jews are encouraged to believe that scary Muslims are hiding under every American bed, the idea is perpetuated that support for the Jewish state is a zero-sum contest between favoring Israel and favoring Arabs and Muslims. For too many American Jews, smearing Islam is seen as a legitimate expression of Zionism.
Groups like The Israel Project, the Middle East Media Research Institute and Middle East Forum seem to exist for no other reason than to spotlight the very worst aspects of Muslim societies. Magazines like Commentary and the Weekly Standard regularly traffic in the crudest stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, and promote the harshest measures for dealing with them. Musing over the appropriateness of targeting Palestinian civilians during the Gaza conflict, Standard contributing editor Michael Goldfarb wrote approvingly, “To wipe out a man’s entire family, it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t give his colleagues at least a moment’s pause.”
Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, president-designate of Shalem College and frequent AIPAC panelist, took things even further, suggesting that Israel’s siege on Gaza, could, by depressing population growth, “crack the culture of martyrdom, which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men.”
In 2007, in what could be seen as a precursor to the current uproar over the Park 51 Islamic cultural center, Middle East Forum Director Daniel Pipes played a key role in flaming controversy over the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a planned New York City public school emphasizing the study of Arabic language and culture. Pipes asserted that such a school represented a potential threat simply by virtue of teaching Arabic.
It would be wrong, however, to pretend that these sorts of smears have been the work solely of conservatives. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a liberal who promotes himself as Israel’s leading public defender, regularly rehearses the most clownish calumnies against Israel’s adversaries, real and perceived. Citing the Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini’s collaboration with the Nazis, Dershowitz wrote, “the Palestinian leadership, supported by the Palestinian masses, played a significant role in Hitler’s Holocaust.” The obviously ahistorical stupidity of that claim aside, it hardly needs pointing out that a similar attempt to lay collective blame upon Jews would be immediately — and rightly — condemned, by Dershowitz and others.
Hatred of Arabs has also had a home in one of America’s oldest and best-respected liberal magazines, The New Republic, for over three decades, courtesy of owner and editor-in-chief Marty Peretz, who never seems to tire of identifying ways in which Arab society is “hidebound and backward,” as he wrote in 2007. Observing the devastation in Iraq, Peretz wrote: “I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) ‘atrocities.’ They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures.” Peretz reiterated that view in September of this year. “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims,” he wrote. “This is a statement of fact, not value.”
While it’s tempting to dismiss Peretz as a racist old kook, he does serve as editor-in-chief of a major magazine, and he has been able to help define the boundaries of acceptable liberal discourse for 30 years. And he has chosen through those years to place the most retrograde anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bigotry — including constant denials of Palestinian nationhood — within those boundaries.
It wasn’t so long ago that Jews in America were targets of similar slander and knee-jerk opposition. Liberal American Jews have been at the forefront of all of America’s struggles against bigotry, but they need to do a better job of calling out the hate in their own communities. Moderate Muslims are often called upon to condemn the extreme rhetoric of their co-religionists. It is not too much, at long last, to call upon moderate Zionists to do the same.
Matthew Duss is National Security Editor at the Center for American Progress.
October 7, 2010: This article has been corrected. Martin Kramer’s association with the Shalem Center and Shalem College originally was misstated.