On his blog for the New Republic, the neo-liberal magazine he owns and edits, Marty Peretz recently wrote of American Muslims: “I wonder whether I need honour 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.” This shocking and seemingly racist line, which he later apologized for, is an example of how the always-difficult debate on the role of Islam in American culture has recently become even more difficult, and more uncomfortable.
One of his critics, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, argued that Peretz’s statement is reflective of “how venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become.” That one sentence indeed did not help Peretz make his argument, which was otherwise well thought out.
In the blog post, Peretz argued that there has never been any serious condemnation by Muslims of the heinous actions of some of their co-religionists. He pointed out that when Muslims kill other Muslims in the Middle East and Africa, few Muslims publicly speak up in criticism.
Peretz was roundly criticized for his line, “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” for which he did not apologize. Peretz also wrote: “I want to believe that Muslims are traumatized by the unrelieved murders in Islamic lands … This intense epidemic of slaughter has been going on for nearly a decade and a half … without protest, without anything.” This is in contrast to when, for instance, the Israeli intelligence agency killed a Hamas operative in Dubai a few months ago, and the world was outraged and protested vehemently. There seems, to both Peretz and to me, to be a double standard at play here.
Kristof, who called Peretz’s statement racist, said the “suggestion that Muslims don’t value human life is … a slur.” But describing the sad state of affairs does not mean he is encouraging it. Peretz wasn’t making a racist comment, but simply noting the absence of free discourse and open dialogue in Muslim societies. If Muslims do disagree with the actions of their fellow Muslims, they seem to stay mostly quiet about it, whether out of fear or just ignorance.
My main problem with Peretz is that he tends to generalize. He writes that there has not been a “single demonstration aimed at Muslim or Arab interests or their commitments to foreign governments and, more likely, to foreign insurgencies and quite alien philosophies.” It is unacceptable for a prominent writer to generalize that all Muslims have the same views and loyalties. Throughout the article, he uses specific, cherry-picked examples to indicate that all Muslims act and think alike, which only reflects his ignorance about Muslims, and especially Muslim-American culture.
This generalization can have consequences beyond inaccurate reporting. Newsweek quoted a Taliban operative who argued that by virtue of the protests against the “mosque” near Ground Zero, “America is doing us a big favour. It’s providing us with more recruits, donations, and popular support.”
The kind of extremism exhibited by the mosque’s opponents—and by Peretz at his worst—only supports the cause of Islamic extremists, and undermines those American Muslims who might otherwise be more confident in speaking out against their violent brethren.