The Council on American-Islamic Relations has encouraged its members to launch an e-mail campaign against me because of a recent column I wrote. I'm not all that concerned because the council does this all the time to other writers and it was simply my turn. Regardless, to date, I've received more than 100 e-mails from a wide array of American Muslims, seemingly unified only by the fact they are Muslims and they subscribe to CAIR's e-mail alerts.
While wading through these letters, I couldn't help but think of poor Michael Weisskopf. He's the reporter who, in 1993, wrote in The Washington Post that evangelical Christians were "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."
The gaffe was cited for years by conservative media critics - including myself - as an example of the ignorance and insensitivity of mainstream news outlets toward people of faith, particularly conservative Christians. Weisskopf became the poster child for the tendency among the media to unfairly stereotype all evangelical Christians as Bible-thumping yokels. And, my friendlier CAIR correspondents accused me of doing to Muslims what Weisskopf did to conservative Christians.
Before I go on, a quick word about the (ital) unfriendly (end ital) correspondents. I have no reluctance saying these are awful people (and worse spellers). Despite CAIR's request that its members "e-mail polite comments," many of them felt free to call me "an evil Jew" who "hates and wants to kill and oppress all non-Jews" (news to my Episcopalian mother and Catholic wife). Several also asserted that the Holocaust is a "lie" and that the "pro-Israel lobby" is paying me to write "hateful" things about Islam (if this is true, my checks are very, very late).
Being charged with bigotry by these extremist bigots and cranks is hardly a stinging accusation.
But, as I said, there were friendly correspondents as well. And these folks were sincere in their criticism. According to them, I simply do not understand Islam. They were quick to argue that "Islam means peace." And they were eager for me to understand, in the words of one, that the experience of Muslims in America is analogous to the plight of Jews in Germany in the 1930s and is becoming like it was in the 1940s (an overstatement by several thousand miles). But, most of all, these people were eager to quote from the history books and the Koran about the kindness, generosity and tolerance inherent to Islam.
Now, to the charge of ignorance of Islam, I plead guilty with extenuating circumstances. While I've been reading from a stack of books about Islam every day since Sept. 11, I cannot claim to know the religion the way someone who grew up in it does. So, in that sense, maybe I am a bit like Weisskopf.
But, on the other hand, Weisskopf's charge that evangelical Christians are "easy to command" seems to apply to these Muslim Americans too. You see, my column which so incensed CAIR largely exonerates Islam as a religion of violence. I wrote that "It would be morally absurd to claim that all of these people subscribe to an evil religion." I also asserted that "focusing on Islam, or whether religions can be evil, is the wrong approach. The problem isn't Islam, it's some of the people who practice it."
Unfortunately, CAIR chose to send selective highlights from my column, making it sound like I hated the religion. When I pointed this out to some of the people screaming at me for "defaming" Islam, some apologized.
And quite a few agreed with my argument that the problem is the Islamic world - i.e. the regions where populations are mostly Muslim - is a mess politically and culturally.
Because of the poverty, corruption and authoritarian oppression in these regions, Islam is being used as a Trojan horse for all sorts of fanatics and tyrants.
The social breakdown seems undeniable to any objective observer. For example, according to Iranian author Amir Tahiri, writing in The Wall Street Journal, of the approximately 30 active armed conflicts in the world today, 28 involve either Muslim governments or communities.
But CAIR doesn't believe that (ital) any (end ital) criticism of Islamic nations or of the Islamic faith is acceptable. To them, the only fair and logical explanation for the problems afflicting the Muslim world are the crimes of Israel and the imperialism of the United States.
There are those who argue that CAIR is actually a Trojan Horse for extremists. For example, Jake Tapper of Salon has reported on CAIR's habit of making apologies for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. It has even shown some reluctance to unequivocally denounce Osama bin Laden.
Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum and a prominent critic of the group, has written that CAIR is a "fringe Islamist organization (which) promotes a Khomeini-like agenda but has the smarts to hide its extremism."
This is all true as far as I can tell. But it's also true that (ital) all (end ital) identity politics groups have a tendency to attract zealots to their leadership. The leaders of the National Organization for Women, for example, are vastly more militant than most of the women who describe themselves as feminists.
The difference is that America wasn't attacked by a group claiming to speak for all women. We were attacked by murderers claiming to speak for all Muslims. As a journalist, I understand my obligation to distinguish between the murderers and their apologists on one hand and peace-loving people of the Islamic faith on the other. It's nice to know that at least some of the members of CAIR understand they have a similar obligation as well.