Mosques, Danger, and Purtiy

September 14, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marty Peretz concluded his recent anti-Muslim rant with this.
I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
This is blatantly wrong. Freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion are not privileges that the government grants to “worthy” people and faiths. These are the rights of everyone, rights that the government is Constitutionally bound to protect.

Nine days later, after a New York Times column had called him out on it, Peretz realized his error and issued an apology. But how could someone who has spent his life writing about government, mostly US government, even teaching about it at Harvard, compose and publish that sentence in the first place?

Peretz was writing to decry a Times editorial that called for tolerance, specifically for the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque, the one that is to be built a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero.

When it comes to the mosque, and to anything related to Islam these days, it seems that we are no longer in the realm of rational political discourse – discussions of policies and their effects. We are in symbolic territory, the realm of Purity and Danger. For Peretz and those of a similar mind, danger is paramount. He speaks of
anxiety about the dangers of Islamism, and anger at the refusal of certain politicians and commentators to adequately grasp those dangers,
Danger calls for a hardening of boundaries and a mentality of Us vs. Them. We need to be sure that everyone on our side is with us and that we have cast out all impurities, i.e, those whose loyalties are the least bit suspect. So Peretz refers to
Muslim or Arab interests or their commitments to foreign governments and, more likely, to foreign insurgencies and, yes, quite alien philosophies.
the increasing number of both naturalized and native-born citizens who enlist in the Islamic terror networks of our time, here and abroad.
As the Times says, this thinking equates all of Islam and all Muslims with terrorism. Or in Peretz’s words,
the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood.
My only consolation is that we’ve been here before. Other religions and other ethnic groups have been similarly vilified and feared. You can probably go back through US history and find language that sounds like what we now hear from the Tea Party and Peretz and the rest, with feared alien agents not Muslims but Catholics, Jews, Italians, Irish, Chinese, and many others. But despite the antipathy of “real Americans,” these groups became mainstream, no longer the objects of fear and suspicion. You can even find some of them at Tea Party demonstrations or writing anti-Muslim screeds for right-wing publications.

The Peretz phrase I find most ominous, I think, is this one:
Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.
Ominous because when we say that some group thinks life is cheap or doesn’t value human life the way we do, it’s often prelude to our killing them in very large numbers.

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