Addressing Congress just a few days after the devastating terrorist attacks on 9/11, President George W. Bush repeatedly emphasized the need to distinguish between the peaceful teachings of Islam and the fanaticism of those “who commit evil in the name of Allah.” The terrorists who had struck on 9/11, were, Bush asserted, “traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”
Even Bush’s most vitriolic critics would echo this view for years. Writing in the Washington Post in July 2007, John L. Esposito, Founding Director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding – which in 2005 was renamed The HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding – insisted: “In our post-9/11 world, the ability to distinguish between Islam itself and Muslim extremism will be critical.”
But soon enough, this was no longer good enough. With a new administration in Washington trying to distance itself from Bush’s “war on terror” at least rhetorically, there were determined efforts to avoid any reference to Islam.
By now, however, it seems clear that this avoidance strategy hasn’t been helpful in any way.
In a scathing essay peppered with lots of sarcasm, Walter Russell Mead recently commented on the “War That Nobody Wants,” arguing:
“But roads paved with good intentions don’t always take you where you want to go, and denial does not look like an effective or sustainable strategy in the current state of what is and remains a multi-theater war against a set of armed religious fanatics and bigoted zealots with a crazed world view and the capacity to make a lot of trouble in a lot of places at the same time. […]
If you want to stoke Islamophobia, don’t level with the people about the nature of the problems we face. […] sometimes truth needs to be told. […] We are fighting a battle first to contain and then to defeat a vicious ideology of murder and hate that masks itself as religious zeal. We are fighting this war both at home and abroad, and there is not an inhabited continent anywhere on Planet Earth where this threat is not a serious concern. All Muslims are not our enemies — far from it, and many of our most important allies and associates are decent, pious, enlightened Muslims who loathe the hate-spewing murderers as much as anybody else — but all of our enemies claim to be fighting in the name of Islam.”
Unfortunately it seems that Mead’s common sense arguments won’t be welcomed by those who prefer to complain loudly about “Islamophobia” while they themselves dismiss the distinction between Muslims and violent extremists who justify savage acts of terrorism in the name of Islam.
As the recent controversy about ads in several US cities that denounce violent jihad as “savage” illustrates, we apparently live in a time when it is “anti-Muslim” to feel it is “savage” that self-described jihadists would consider videos of beheadings “very, very important” tools for recruiting volunteers to their ranks. And apparently, it’s also beyond the pale to recoil at the savagery of Muslim fanatics who proudly announce that they will keep trying to kill a fourteen-year old girl that they already injured grievously to silence her demands for education, respect and dignity.
The prominent Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy, who is widely considered a liberal activist, has done much to publicize the controversy about the ads denouncing violent jihad as “savage.” As I have documented, she responded to the ads by declaring herself a “proud savage;” she then proceeded to deface one of the ads and, in the aftermath of being arrested and charged with misdemeanor and criminal mischief, she started a very successful publicity campaign to style herself as a latter-day heroine of the Civil Rights movement – while boasting at the same time that she and her supporters succeeded in getting the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to announce revised advertising guidelines.
After all this agitation, Eltahawy has now decided that it was finally time to do what one could have expected from a prominent writer long ago, and she has taken to the pages of the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) website to make her case in writing.
It is quite obviously a weak case. The headline of her post announces “If anti-Muslim ads are protected, so must be my free speech right to protest” – but the text reveals that even Eltahawy is aware that her act of vandalism wasn’t really an exercise of free speech, because she admits: “I broke the law, yes.”
But Eltahawy adds defiantly: “So what? I broke it to make a point of principle. Eleven years after the 9/11 attacks, American Muslims are still being bullied and vilified.”
Indeed, Eltahawy tries hard to make the case that there is at least some “coincidental correlation” between the ads that denounce violent jihad as savage and various incidents of anti-Muslim violence and bigotry. Her article opens with a reference to a recent arson attack on the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo:
“Five days after I spraypainted over a racist and bigoted advertisement in the New York subway, a man set fire to my brother’s local mosque. He struck just a few hours after the mosque’s kindergarten had been filled with children at Sunday school, including my four nieces and nephews.
It was a coincidental correlation but there was nothing casual about either the hate speech on the walls of the subway […] or the arson in Ohio, which was described as an ‘act of terrorism’ by officials who announced federal hate crime charges against the suspect.”
Leaving aside the fact that Eltahawy of course knows full well that the accused arsonist was reportedly motivated by his anger about recent anti-American violence in the Middle East, it is noteworthy that it apparently wouldn’t occur to her that, due to the fanaticism of violent jihadists, hundreds of thousands of Israeli children live daily under the threat that her nieces and nephews might have faced attending Sunday school in a mosque in Ohio.
One could also recall in this context the terrorist attack on a religious seminary in Jerusalem in spring 2008 that resulted in the killing of eight students and the wounding of 11 others – a result that was cheered and celebrated by Hamas supporters in Gaza.
In the world of Mona Eltahawy, it is “anti-Muslim” to denounce any of this as savage. And in Mona Eltahawy’s world it is also “anti-Muslim” to point out that there is not just a “coincidental” but a very direct “correlation” between the thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians as well as the many brutal terrorist attacks and the ringing endorsements of a divinely ordained genocidal battle against the Jews by leading clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who – according to Eltahawy herself – is “mainstream” and “commands a huge audience on and off the satellite channels.”
While Eltahawy would not hesitate to express her loathing of Qaradawi’s views on women in the strongest terms, she apparently takes no offense when Qaradawi tells his “huge audience” of followers that the extermination of Jews by Muslims is divinely ordained – so much so that even the “stones and trees” will do their part by betraying any Jew who might hide behind them.
Whether Eltahawy and her supporters like it or not, the kind of Jew-hating jihad preached by Qaradawi and recently threatened by the Supreme Guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is indeed savage in the context of 21st century civilization.
The claim that it is “anti-Muslim” to say so unfortunately makes sense only if one accepts that Qaradawi’s Jew-hatred is and should be part of mainstream Muslim beliefs. Mona Eltahawy seems to accept that when she rails against the condemnation of jihad as savage and adopts the hashtag #ProudSavage, but fails to even acknowledge the appalling ideology and acts of the violent jihadists of our time.
Rather bizarrely, she concludes her CiF-article by emphasizing that her nieces – who apparently live in the US – “will not grow up to be scared or apologetic for being Muslim, or Egyptian, or brown.” She also praises the “refusal to be intimidated by bullies” shown by many young Muslims who “were just 10 or 11 when 9/11 happened, and […who] refuse to apologise for something they had nothing to do with.”
Very different from what Eltahawy suggests, nobody who wants to be taken serious will demand that young Muslims apologize for “something they had nothing to do with.” But it is entirely reasonable and justified to expect Muslims – whether younger or older – to understand that demands to ignore the horrors advocated and perpetrated by violent jihadists won’t do much to combat anti-Muslim bigotry.
Mona Eltahawy clearly doesn’t understand that and concludes her article declaring: “The only hashtag I will consider is #ProudSavage.”
* * *
This post was first published at my JPost blog and, under a slightly different title, cross-posted on CiFWatch.
Only after I published this post, I saw that the Wall Street Journal had an article on this issue on October 1. The brilliant title says it all: “Call a Terrorist a ‘Savage’? How Uncivilized.”
Here is one of the examples highlighted in the WSJ to illustrate that the description “savage” is justified:
“This is a Reuters photo that ran on the New York Times front page for Sept. 1, 2004. It shows an Israeli bus after it had been blown up by a suicide bomber. Neither bloody nor gory, the photo is nonetheless deeply disturbing, because it shows the lifeless body of a young woman hanging out a window.
The Times news story added this detail about the reaction to that attack. “In Gaza,” ran the report, “thousands of supporters of Hamas celebrated in the streets, and the Associated Press reported that one of the bombers’ widows hailed the attack as ‘heroic’ and said her husband’s soul was ‘happy in heaven.'” What part of any of this is not savage?”
Some three weeks have passed since the controversy about the ads denouncing violent jihad as savage erupted, and neither Mona Eltahawy nor her fans and supporters have bothered to explain why they object to this. I have asked this question a few times on Twitter, but either I didn’t get any answer – which actually was sort of the best-case scenario – or I got blocked (this was Mona Eltahawy’s response) or I had some abuse hurled at me. Sad times for self-described progressives: it seems they can function only in a well-insulated echo-chamber.
In any case, I’ve in the meantime also come across a report on reason.com about Mona Eltahawy’s defacing of one of the ads, which notes:
“Eltahawy is not a raving lunatic. In the past she has made some fairly intelligent criticisms of extremists. But even allowing that few people keep cool heads while getting handcuffed by burly cops, she has obviously gone off the deep end here.”
Following the links provided here leads to two articles by Mona Eltahawy. The first was written in July 2005, shortly after the 7/7 London bombings; the second one is from January 2006 and comments on the riots staged by Muslims in response to some cartoons published in an obscure Danish newspaper. In both articles Eltahawy expresses views she apparently no longer holds – because if she did, it’s hard to see why she would have been so incensed by the denunciation of violent jihad as savage.
Consider these statements from Eltahawy’s commentary on the cartoon riots:
“the cartoon incident belongs at the very center of the kind of debate that Muslims must have in the European countries where they live – particularly after the Madrid train bombings of 2003 and the London subway bombings of 2005. While right-wing anti-immigration groups whip up Islamophobia in Denmark, Muslim communities wallow in denial over the increasing role of their own extremists.
As just one example, last August Fadi Abdullatif, the spokesman for the Danish branch of the militant Hizb-ut-Tahrir organization, was charged with calling for the killing of members of the Danish government. He distributed leaflets calling on Muslims in Denmark to go to Fallujah in Iraq and fight the Americans, and to kill their own leaders if they obstructed them. […]
Not only does Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organization banned in many Muslim countries, have a branch in Denmark, but Abdullatif has a history of calling for violence that he then justifies by referring to freedom of speech – the very notion the Danish newspaper made use of to publish the cartoons. In October 2002, Abdullatif was found guilty of distributing racist propaganda after Hizb-ut-Tahrir handed out leaflets that made threats against Jews by citing verses from the Koran. He was given a 60-day suspended sentence.
Abdullatif used the Koran to justify incitement to violence! And we still wonder why people associate Islam with violence?
Muslims must honestly examine why there is such a huge gap between the way we imagine Islam and our prophet, and the way both are seen by others. Our offended sensibilities must not be limited to the Danish newspaper or the cartoonist, but [must extend] to those like Fadi Abdullatif whose actions should be regarded as just as offensive to Islam and to our reverence for the prophet.”
I sure couldn’t agree more – indeed, about a year ago, I argued in a post asking “Who’s defaming Islam?”:
“efforts to shield Islam from defamation by non-Muslims will inevitably look like an attempt to proscribe free speech as long as authorities that claim a leading role in the Muslim world as well as mainstream Muslim groups and widely revered Muslim scholars come out with statements that sound quite ‘Islamophobic’ when quoted as representative of mainstream Muslim views.”
However, in the meantime, Mona Eltahawy seems to have changed her views. She apparently no longer thinks it is worthwhile to make demands on her fellow Muslims and prefers instead to add her voice to the chorus of complaints about western “Islamophobia” and styling herself as a potential victim by declaring herself a “proud savage.”
But while Muslim extremism and militancy remain as much of a problem today as they were on 9/11, we know that the charges about “Islamophobia” have been greatly exaggerated. As Jonathan S. Tobin pointed out in a post entitled “FBI Statistics Belie Islamophobia Hysteria:”
“It has become an accepted trope of contemporary journalism that American Muslims are under siege and beset by hatred and prejudice. But the evidence for this conventional wisdom is lacking. The story line of Muslim persecution in the United States has always been a matter of anecdotes and perception, not facts. That truth was confirmed this week when the FBI released their annual crime statistics report which showed once again that hate crimes against Muslims remain rare and are far outnumbered by attacks on Jews. […]
Because the far greater number of attacks on Jews is not viewed […] as proof the country is boiling with hatred for Jews, how can anyone rationally argue that the far fewer number of assaults on Muslims can justify the conclusion that Islamophobia is rampant?”
Tobin, however, is making the same mistake that I made: he wrongly assumes this is a rational debate. But it isn’t a rational debate – and as far as Mona Eltahawy is concerned, it shouldn’t be a rational debate. Indeed, it seems she feels that as long as she has some 165 000 followers on Twitter, rational argument is just a waste of time.