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Comedians and academics unite to limit freedom of speech.


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Clifford D. May

 

An African-American woman who affects a Jewish-sounding surname as a running joke storms off the stage in response to what she regards as the slander of Muslims. Only in America.

But let me back up, in case you missed it: Last week, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly appeared on ABC’s The View and argued against allowing an Islamic center to be built a stone’s throw away from the consecrated ground where the World Trade Center once stood. When asked why he objected, he blurted out: “Because Muslims killed us on 9/11!”

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At that point Whoopi (the nickname derives from “whoopee cushion”) Goldberg (see above) and co-host Joy Behar exited stage left in righteous outrage. Put aside for a moment whether O’Reilly is right or wrong about the Islamic center. Put aside, too, whether, by failing to put an adjective — e.g., “radical” or “extremist” — in front of “Muslims,” he implied that all Muslims bear responsibility for the atrocities of 9/11. Consider simply this: how difficult it has become to discuss such questions.

By walking off the set, talk-show hosts Goldberg and Behar were saying they will not tolerate talk about possible links between Islamic belief and terrorism. Co-panelist and producer Barbara Walters, to her credit, immediately said they were wrong.

But quick to support Goldberg and Behar was none other than John L. Esposito, the founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (an institution that has accepted $20 million from a Saudi prince) and an apologist for Wahhabism (which is among the more extreme interpretations of Islam). Writing in the Huffington Post, Esposito presented no scholarly or even serious argument. Instead, he attempted to shut down debate by calling O’Reilly’s remark “baseless anti-Muslim rhetoric” reflecting the “anti-Islam hysteria sweeping over the U.S.”

To substantiate that claim, Esposito noted that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has called for a “federal law that says Sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States.” He added that “nobody is calling for Islamic Law . . .”

Among the obvious facts that ignores: Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris has gone into hiding after an American-born imam called for her to be killed for the “crime” of suggesting that an “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day” would bolster freedom of speech. In the Netherlands, Theo van Gogh was murdered for the “crime” of making a film critical of the treatment of women under Islam. Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders is on trial right now, for the “crime” of expressing opinions offensive to Muslims. He is hardly the first European to face such legal consequences, as Nina Shea recently made clear.

Meanwhile, a number of major American businesses are instituting Sharia financing — which requires that they hire an imam to vet investments and award a percentage of profits to favored Islamic “charities.” And the Obama administration has supported efforts by the Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to have the U.N. pass a resolution that would bar “negative stereotyping” of religions. If you think that will apply equally to all religions, there’s a bridge in Riyadh I want to sell you.

None of this is meant to suggest that O’Reilly should be beyond criticism. Peter Wehner, a conservative commentator, wrote that what O’Reilly said was wrong — that his remark was not akin to saying, “The Japanese bombed us at Pearl Harbor” — which everyone knows to be (1) true, but (2) not a condemnation of all Japanese. Rather, it was like saying, “Catholics are child molesters,” which appears to assign guilt not only to deviant priests but to all Roman Catholics.

I think Wehner makes a good point but misses this: No Catholics are molesting children because they believe that’s what they are commanded to do by Jesus, the Bible, or the Pope. No Catholics are denouncing as apostates fellow Christians who oppose the molestation of children.

By contrast, thousands of acts of terrorism are being carried out under Islam’s banner. Muslim reformers grapple with this: Irshad Manji titled her book The Trouble with Islam Today. Having written that book, she, too, lives under threat from Muslim militants. It’s worth reminding ourselves: It’s not just that most terrorists are Muslims; most victims of terrorism are Muslims, too.

Wehner added that to “be an American means, at least in part, to avoid creating unnecessary divisions over matters of faith.” The possibility that a faith can be the basis for a totalitarian ideology does not fit within the neat boxes of Western thinking. Yet that is exactly what Muslim intellectuals such as Sayyid Qutb proposed in the mid-20th century in such books as Social Justice in Islam, and Milestones (a manifesto of political Islam), and his 30-volume commentary on the Koran. These writings had a profound influence on such Islamist organizations as the Muslim Brotherhood and such jihadi organizations as al-Qaeda. Qutb was translated into Farsi by none other than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

As I write this, terrorist hit teams — believing Muslims acting on religious conviction — are being sought in Europe and America. Iran’s theocrats — whose proxies have for years slaughtered Americans and Israelis — are in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons. More than ever we need to discuss Islam, Islamism, and jihadism — where they connect and where they diverge.

But it’s hard to have such discussions, particularly in the mainstream news and entertainment media, so long as comedians like Whoopi Goldberg and academics like John Esposito are — wittingly or unwittingly — conspiring with extremists to narrow the parameters of free speech.

— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.



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