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The Left’s Peretz Problem

Posted By Jacob Laksin On September 30, 2010 @ 12:30 am In FrontPage | 74 Comments

It doesn’t take much to provoke the modern furies of political correctness, but longtime New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz touched off a still-raging storm earlier this month when he published a blog post lamenting the general failure of Muslims to protest the sectarian murder of their coreligionists in the Islamic world. In the passage that most incensed his critics, Peretz concluded that

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

Judging by the howls of indignation and excoriation generated by that post, one might think that Peretz had called for the immediate extermination of all Muslims. Left-wing blogs condemned Peretz as a “racist” and a bigot. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the post “debased.” The backlash was even more hostile at Harvard University, where Peretz had taught for over 40 years and where he was honored this weekend for an undergraduate research fund established in his name earlier this year. What was supposed to be a celebratory occasion instead became a public inquisition, as student protestors, bearing signs with quotes from Peretz – evidence, by their standards, of the consummate evil of his views – heckled the honoree and harangued him as he tried to exit the campus. In that harassment they were openly encouraged by some Harvard faculty and implicitly by the university’s administration, which all but sanctioned the protests when it called Peretz’s comments about Muslims “distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so.”

It is not to excuse the more inflammatory name-calling of Peretz’s critics to note that some of his comments were indeed offensive. In a follow-up to his initial post, a rightly “embarrassed” Peretz apologized for his crass and carelessly worded suggestion that Muslims should be denied First Amendment rights. And yet it remains the case that Peretz’s broader point, however artlessly made, was a sound one.

The controversy surrounding the mosque and Islamic cultural center to be built two blocks from Ground Zero is a case in point. That project has been defended on First Amendment grounds by everyone from Imam Rauf to President Obama, who insist that Muslims have a First Amendment right to built where they please. But in truth none of the mosque project’s opponents – who polls show include the majority of New Yorkers, hardly a right-wing powerbase – have questioned the right to build a mosque at Ground Zero – only the wisdom and decency of doing so at that sensitive and, for many New Yorkers, uniquely sacred location. No reasonable person would deny that Muslims should have the same access to the First Amendment as all Americans, but the promiscuity with which proponents of the mosque project have tried to make a constitutional issue out of what is really a debate about propriety certainly validates Peretz’s concern about First Amendment abuse.

The hypocrisy of Peretz’s critics is also striking. The same protestors who professed outrage at Peretz’s comments about the First Amendment tried to have him barred from speaking at this weekend’s celebration. How genuine are their concerns about the unrestricted exercise of the First Amendment if they are so eager to deny it to those, like Peretz, with whom they disagree?

All the more rank is that hypocrisy when one considers that Peretz’s other controversial comment – “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims” – is not actually that controversial, and has been made so only through deliberate misconstruction. Thus, the Economist absurdly interpreted the statement to mean that Peretz was downgrading the significance of Muslim life generally and charged, equally absurdly, that America’s military involvement in the Middle East “creates pressure to believe this sort of thing.” But as would be obvious to any fair-minded reader, Peretz was simply making the irrefutable observation that Muslims are disproportionately responsible for the deaths of their fellow believers.

Evidence for the claim abounds. In a 2007 article, for instance, Daniel Pipes estimated that of the approximately 11 million Muslims that have been violently killed since 1948, over 90 percent were killed by fellow Muslims. Muslims may cry foul about Israeli and American “occupation,” but the cold fact is that they are their own worst enemy. From Sudan, to Pakistan, to Afghanistan, to Iran, to Iraq, to Gaza, no one kills more Muslims than other Muslims. What the Economist considers a “prejudice” on Peretz’s part is in fact a reality – a reality no less true for being so tragic.

But if Peretz can be largely exonerated of the charges of bigotry and racism – the latter especially bogus, given that Muslims are not a race – the same cannot be said of his critics. In charging that Peretz was prejudiced, the Economist claimed that he represented a “segment of American Jewish politics” that tried to inflame conflicts between Israel and its neighbors. Even ignoring the historical fact that Israel’s Arab neighbors have never required additional incentive to war against the Jewish state, it was a curious claim. Given that lots of non-Jews in America share Peretz’s pro-Israel views, one might well wonder why the Economist felt compelled to single out Jews.

What then are the lessons of this manufactured scandal? In part, to be sure, Peretz’s troubles are a cautionary tale on the dangers of blogging, a medium that often privileges the immediacy of writing over its thoughtfulness. But it’s far more reflective of the intellectual corruption of the politically correct Left, which expends more energy condemning critics of radical Islam than its terrorist practitioners. Focus on Islamic radicalism and you’re likely to be told that you are feeding anti-Muslim bigotry and encouraging a backlash against Muslims. Never mind that the threatened backlash never materializes, that America remains an exceptionally tolerant country, and that much of what is dismissed as “bigotry” is in fact justified anxiety about the dangers of Islamic extremism. The facts are immaterial. The backlash against Peretz is thus properly seen as part of a broader campaign to delegitimize views that the Left dislikes and in so doing to constrict the boundaries for acceptable debate – a campaign of intolerance waged under the flag of tolerance.

Seen for what they are, the attacks on Peretz require no defense. Still, Peretz has ably provided one. Since his critics are so fond of citing his writing, it’s perhaps best to let it speak for itself.

“There is no hatred in my heart; there is deep anxiety about the dangers of Islamism, and anger at the refusal of certain politicians and commentators to adequately grasp those dangers, but there is no hatred, none.”

That these commentators have been more alarmed by a few sentences from a liberal Jewish writer than by the threat of radical Islam is compelling proof that Peretz’s anxiety, and his anger, are more than merited.


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