Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Heritage's Problem with Muslims (UPDATED: and Pushback)

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank reports on a Heritage Foundation panel this weekend on the Benghazi issue, where a group of speakers weighed in on the Muslim threat to America:

Then Saba Ahmed, an American University law student, stood in the back of the room and asked a question in a soft voice. “We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” she told them. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.” ...

If the report is accurate, the speakers then contempuously dismissed Ms. Ahmed's point, to the cheers of the crowd. One speaker, Brigitte Gabriel of a group called ACT! for America,

dismissed as “irrelevant” the “2.3 million Arab Muslims living in the United States [when] it took 19 hijackers — 19 radicals — to bring America down.” She mocked Ahmed’s “point about peaceful, moderate Muslims” by making quotation marks with her fingers when she said the word peaceful.

Heritage's attitude seems to be unchanged from, or worse than, a few years ago, when they invited me to speak with a couple of other panelists about "Islam and Religious Liberty." I said yes and described my thesis: that it was vital for religious traditionalists to enlist American Muslims, most whom are both devout and peaceful, as partners in the defense of full religious liberty, i.e. the freedom of all Americans to live out religious values in society, not just in private/insular settings. The staff member who had conveyed the invitation called back the next day and said that wasn't what her supervisors had in mind: they really wanted only talks about how Islam threatened religious liberty.

That attitude is both unfair and short-sighted. It's important, of course, to talk and act concerning radical Islam's threats of violence; but it's simply wrong to ignore how much most Muslim practice, especially in America, differs from that, and how much Muslim citizens can contribute to our society.

There are important voices challenging religious conservatives (and all Americans, because this problem crosses ideological lines) to reject anti-Muslim prejudice. They include our own Robbie George, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Keep up that crucial work!

UPDATE: As several people pointed out to me, Milbank's characterization has been sharply criticized,  here and here. You can look at the video here. I think it does complicate the simple story Milbank tells. For one thing, Frank Gaffney gives a respectful response to the woman's question while still making his point: clearly not all the speakers dismiss her. For another thing, it's unclear whether, as the speaker Ms. Gabriel charged, the questioner introduced the issue about Islam without any provocation from anything any of the speakers had said. But I do think the video still supports a couple of points:

(1) Ms. Gabriel adopts a hostile and accusatory tone to the questioner (who only asked whether it's possible to win the war against radical Islam without undercutting the appeal of the ideology), and Ms. Gabriel dismisses moderate Muslims as "irrelevant" the fight against radical Islam. I don't think wholesale dismissals of peaceful Muslims as "irrelevant" are likely to increase conservatism's appeal to those folks, who as I said might otherwise be allies on some important social and cultural issues. The fact that she acknowledged most Muslims are peaceful does not undo the counterproductive results of dismissing them as irrelevant.

(2) Although I wasn't in the room, the ovation from the crowd (with quite a few people standing) in response to Ms. Gabriel's comeback had a level of emotion that I don't think reflects a hospitable attitude toward  Muslim citizens, or would reasonably be taken by Muslims as hospitable.

No doubt I'm reading my own experience with Heritage into a judgment about the balance in the programs it does on this subject. (There's no audio of the phone conversation I had with Heritage about their invitation, so you'll have to take my word for it.) And Heritage's approach isn't really the issue. But there is an undeniable problem here, folks. I also read attitudes about Muslims in light of evidence like the empirical work of Greg and his co-authors, which shows that Muslims have a markedly lower success rate than other groups in their religious-liberty claims in federal court. The authors conclude, after investigating other possible causes for this pattern, that "the persistent uneasiness of many Americans about Muslims appears to have filtered into the attitudes of such well-educated and independent elites as federal judges."


Berg, Thomas | Permalink