How I de-fanged Alan Wolfe

Posted: Apr 30, 2007 12:00 AM

As an author I don’t mind criticism, and I get it a lot. In a sense, I ask for it. I write controversial books on timely topics and I try to introduce something original into the argument. In my most recent book The Enemy at Home I even began my first chapter with the title, “What Conservatives ‘Know’ About 9/11, and Why It’s Wrong.” Even some pundits on the right got upset and a lively debated ensued. Readers who want to follow my response to prominent right-wing critics can find it on my website

What no author appreciates, however, is reviewers who misrepresent and lie about a book. In that case the reviewer is giving the reader a false picture of the book’s argument, and then the critic proceeds to demolish the straw man, in the process impressing but also thoroughly misleading the reader. A case in point was Alan Wolfe, who was the academic hit man tasked with trashing my book in the New York Times.

Conservatives don’t expect favorable reviews in the New York Times. But they have a right to expect a minimally-accurate account of what they are trying to say. Wolfe’s review was one of the most vitriolic attacks that I have ever seen in print. He deemed my book a “national disgrace” and said I was “either self-delusional or dishonest.” He declared me a “childish thinker” with “no sense of shame.” He even said I was a spurned suitor of Bin Laden.

Over the years I have tried to become thick-skinned about this stuff. Even so, when conservative students at Boston College told me that they had raised funds from the school for me to lecture there, I reminded them that Alan Wolfe was the head of the Boisi Center on Religion at their institution. I asked them to find out whether he would debate me. He agreed, and the debate took place before a packed auditorium on April 18.

The resolution focused on whether the left was responsible for 9/11. Speaking first, I decided to take the high road. Rather than dispute the specific claims of Wolfe’s review, I thought I would present my ideas to the students and let them evaluate them on their merits. I showed how liberal foreign policy helped Khomeini come to power in 1979. I explained how Clinton’s inactions emboldened Bin Laden to plan the 9/11 attacks. I argued that liberal cultural values projected abroad have alienated traditional Muslims and strengthened the recruitment of radical Islam.

Wolfe came out swinging. But instead of questioning my thesis—which he left intact—Wolfe proceeded to repeat the bizarre allegations of his original review, and to add new ones. He accused me of seeking to form alliances with Muslims who deny the holocaust. He said I supported introducing sharia law into the United States, in which people would be flogged for premarital sex and adultery. He made other allegations.

So in my rebuttal I listed Wolfe’s accusations (I support Bin Laden, I want to make pacts with holocaust deniers, I favor penal laws against adultery) and I challenged Wolfe to substantiate them. He couldn’t give a single citation to back up any of his charges. He didn’t even attempt to provide textual evidence or support them, relying entirely on the claim that if what he said wasn’t true, the New York Times would not have printed it!

During my cross-examination I decided to test Wolfe’s knowledge of Islam. I asked him what percentage of Muslims in the world live in a democracy. Long silence. He said he couldn’t give a precise number. I asked him to give an approximate number. He just stood there. Finally I said, “You have no idea, have you?” He didn’t. Then I asked him which is the most populous Muslim country. He was blank on this too. Finally he guessed, “India?” I informed him that India is not a Muslim country, it is a predominantly Hindu country, but in any case, it does not have the largest Muslim population. The correct answer is Indonesia, which also happens to be a democracy. Among democracies, I asked, which is the second largest Muslim country. Once again Wolfe guessed, “India?” The correct answer is Bangladesh.

So here is a guy who heads a center on religion at Boston College, and it turns out he doesn’t know the first thing about Islam. Yet incredibly the New York Times invited Wolfe to review my book. The Enemy at Home is based on a study of how America and the West are viewed through the prism of Islamic history and by the leading thinkers of contemporary Islam. Criticism is welcome, but a minimal familiarity with Islam might be helpful here.

I wish that the editors of the New York Times Book Review were present at the debate because they would have been thoroughly embarrassed. Looking into the audience I could see the faces of the students, including some of Wolfe’s own students. Some had their mouths open. Others looked like they had been slapped. Still others—especially the conservatives—were grinning and chuckling. Rarely do professors who tyrannize over their students in class get exposed in front of their students as buffoons.

Boston College taped the event, and they are going to post it online. This way viewers across the country will have a chance to see for themselves how I de-fanged Alan Wolfe. I’ll be linking to the event on my daily blog which you can access through my website. Get popcorn.