The work of Peter Beinart will be known to many NR readers, not least as the result of his frequent sparring matches with Jonah Goldberg. (A few months back, Andrew Ferguson concentrated immense firepower on this target in the pages of Commentary. What most drew Ferguson’s delightful ire was Beinart’s style — sonorous without ever incurring the risk of being serious. I recommend it to all.)
Strange currents have billowed Peter Beinart’s sails of late. He has fallen into the sloppy habit of lambasting conservatives for their “anti-Muslim bigotry.” First it was the “Ground Zero mosque” (which Beinart supports); now it is the inquiry into domestic Islamic terrorism led by Congressman King (which Beinart opposes).
In his latest reflection on the state of conservatism, Beinart conjures the Homeland Security Committee’s hearings on the “Radicalization of Muslim Americans.” These hearings, Beinart notes, aren’t centered on domestic terrorism per se but rather “domestic terrorism by one religious group. Is most American terrorism Muslim terrorism?” After making the non-trivial concession that American Muslims may well be “statistically more likely to commit terrorism than non-Muslims,” Beinart still thinks it wrong — and hateful — to make too much of this. “What the government should be targeting is the behavior, not the religious or ethnic group.”
This is arrant nonsense. First, the claim that bigotry is felt toward all who press their foreheads to the floor in the direction of Mecca is a category error, as was pointed out in this space yesterday by Dan Foster. These hearings bring no focus, much less bigotry, to bear on any ethnic group. The adherents of militant Islam — the genuine issue at hand — are not confined to any single background or “race.”
For liberals of the classical variety (and for those of us nursing hope for the future of an Islam at peace with democracy), different principles operate. George Washington famously assured the Jews of Newport that the U.S. government, dedicated to religious tolerance, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Just so. It goes without saying that no believer ought to be persecuted on the basis of his belief. This does not mean, as Beinart seems to believe, that a reasonable scrutiny applied to a religious population in order to cull its most dangerous members constitutes a breach of American values.
The buffoonish but by no means sinister figure of Mike Huckabee has declared that “the accommodation we’re making to one religion at the expense of others is very un-American.” To which Beinart snorts: “Once upon a time, Republicans claimed that the accommodation and respect America offered people of all faiths was part of what they, as conservatives, championed.” Can he possibly justify this absurd flourish? Faith is an idea, and like all ideas carries no inherent claim on our respect. Religious faith is entitled to expect tolerance in a free society, but little else. American exceptionalism, properly understood, champions secular principles in which faith that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others can be followed without fear or favor.
Nominally concerned with threats to national security and the global success of liberty, as Jonah highlights below, Beinart seems oddly reluctant to face the nature of a horribly violent and deeply illiberal foe. Rather more odd, and contemptible, is for him to fling the accusation of prejudice at those who take seriously the theocratic nature of the enemy. Without the slightest bow to bigotry, you can assent to all of the above. In fact, it would be nice if someone explained to Peter Beinart that you can’t be much of a liberal, of any stripe, if you don’t.