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Peretz-Wieseltier Smackdown! The Islam Menace! (Also, Yours Truly on NPR, Sunday)

(My NPR details: ‘On the Media,’ Sunday Sept. 5. In NYC, 10 am on 93.9 FM, 3 pm on 820 AM. Elsewhere, check the show’s schedule.) (Update: here is the broadcast, streaming audio plus transcript.)

On to tachlis: The New Republic has a particularly seething confrontation on its website between the editor in chief, Martin Peretz, and his chief deputy, literary editor Leon Wieseltier, on the place of Muslims and Islam in America. Actually, that’s putting it too mildly. The debate is really over the question of whether or not Muslims can be trusted around our children. It gets pretty raw.

To be fair, Peretz doesn’t exactly say they can’t be trusted. But he did say, in a September 2 post on his blog, “The Mosque Is In Trouble, Very Big Trouble,” that the people fighting against the Islamic community center planned near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan are a fine bunch of folks fighting the good fight against bad people of various sorts.

In my view, the really modest struggle against the mosque is probably the closest thing we’ve had to a genuinely grass roots effort against the casual and elitist First Amendment fundamentalists. “No” to admitting in schools that Christmas has something to do with Christianity. But “yes” to public financing of what looks to me like a sleazy venture combining religion, marriage catering, sports activity, political propaganda and what would pretend to be kultcha.

Did I just hear the editor of The New Republic condoning Christian celebrations in pubic schools? That would be big news if he meant it. But he’s just getting carried away in his rhetoric. He’s after bigger game. First of all, Sharif El-Gamal, “the real estate hustler who is behind the project,” who has been “endlessly taken to court by his tenants” and owes back taxes. Imagine that. Who ever heard of a landlord, and a religious one at that, being taken to court by his tenants? Look what happens when you let infidels into your backyard.

And then there is the theological desperado, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose intellectual history is so flexible that no one (except, of course, Mayor Bloomberg) can tell what kind of Muslim he is. And, yes, there are different kinds of Muslims as there are different kinds of Christian Fundamentalists. (Emphasis mine.)

Wieseltier offers what sounds like a sharp rebuke in his “Washington Diarist” column, “Mosque Notes,” also dated September 2 (though the timing suggests he hadn’t read Peretz’s post before he wrote his piece).

He starts off indirectly by discussing Baruch Goldstein, “one of the most accomplished Jewish terrorists of our time.” He recalls that critics who called for introspection by the wing of Orthodoxy from which he sprang were denounced as slanderers of religious Zionism or Orthodoxy or Judaism itself. You can see where he’s going with this. But read on:

The killer, we were angrily instructed, was an aberration, and any generalization from his action was an unwarranted imputation of collective responsibility. I disagreed. Baruch Goldstein murdered in the name of Judaism, with an interpretation of Judaism, from a social and intellectual position within Judaism. The same was later true of Yigal Amir. They did not represent the entirety of Judaism, or of the Jewish institutions that formed them — but the massacre in Hebron and the assassination in Tel Aviv were among their effects.

He goes on to say that he has

no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them.

And just as he believes it’s right to examine the Jewish roots of Baruch Goldstein’s beliefs, it’s “not Islamophobic” to put bin Laden and the 9/11 killers within the context of their stream of Islam. “Apologetic definitions of Islam will not avail anybody in this struggle.”

O.K., so Islam as a whole is as flawed as other religions. It follows that it is entitled to the same First Amendment freedom of religion due to other faiths. It’s fundamental American principle.

In matters of principle, moreover, polling is beside the point, or an alibi for the tyranny of the majority, or an invitation to demagogues to make divisiveness into a strategy, so that their targets come to seem like they are the ones standing in the way of social peace, and the “decent” thing is for them to fold. Why doesn’t Rauf just move the mosque? That would bring the ugliness to an end. But why don’t Palin and Gingrich just shut up? That, too, would bring the ugliness to an end. Certainly the diabolization of Rauf, an imam who has publicly recited the Shema as an act of solidarity and argued that the Declaration of Independence “embodies and restates the core values of the Abrahamic, and thus also the Islamic, ethic,” must cease. In a time when an alarming number of Muslims wish to imitate Osama bin Laden, here is a Muslim who wishes to imitate Mordecai Kaplan. Turn away, from him?

(The full Wieseltier piece is behind the subscription firewall, but you can read it in full on this blog. It’s worth it.)

If you thought Peretz was going to take that lying down, you were wrong. He came back two days later in a September 4 blog post tersely titled “The New York Times Laments ‘A Sadly Wary Misunderstanding of Muslim-Americans.’ But Really Is It ‘Sadly Wary’ Or A “Misunderstanding” At All?”

His ostensible target is a Times poll of New York City residents “which found that 33% of them thought Muslim-American ‘more sympathetic to terrorists’ than other citizens.” Peretz thinks that’s an underestimate, first because respondents are frequently less than frank, and second because Heartland Americans are probably more suspicious of foreigners than New Yorkers are. He also thinks the country at large is all but silent in the face of the Muslim threat because people afraid to speak out.

In fact, there has not been a single rally or demonstration in America aimed at Muslim or Arab interests or their commitments to foreign governments and, more likely, to foreign insurgencies and, yes, quite alien philosophies. I suggest that this is largely the case because Americans are so fearful of being accused of bias, however the injustice of the charge might be.

Indeed. Somebody really ought to be doing something about those religious minorities with their insidious commitments to foreign governments. I’m sure Marty will have no trouble finding people ready to line up behind him on that. I hear John Mearsheimer has already sent in his dues.

Peretz writes that Muslims have been slaughtering each other en masse for decades, even centuries, and nobody ever bothers to protest.

Why do not Muslims raise their voices against these at once planned and random killings all over the Islamic world? This world went into hysteria some months ago when the Mossad took out the Hamas head of its own Murder Inc.

But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood.

And so, dear Leon,

yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.

Take that, Brooklyn boy. Henry Ford couldn’t have said it better.

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