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.