Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, and the problem of compelled speech
One of my favourite Seinfeld episodes had Kramer joining an AIDS walk. But he refuses to “wear the ribbon.” People keep urging him to take it, and he keeps politely refusing. They become more importunate. He won’t budge. Finally, they get ugly and turn on him with menace: “Who doesn’t want to wear the ribbon?” one walker yells accusingly, as others press in on him.
The scene is, of course, played for laughs, but it nevertheless reveals a dark truth about ritualized compassion. If your sympathy for a good cause has to meet a “compelled speech” standard to be considered sincere, then who is the more admirable character? In this parody of bullying virtue-signallers (not a trope in use at the time), we see that often those “wearing the ribbon” are more concerned about showcasing the “correct” public expression of their sympathy than the plight of the actual victims they are marching for. Bullying those who eschew conforming symbols thus provokes contempt for the bullies and respect for the genuine sincerity of the non-conformist.
I was reminded of this episode last weekend, after a talk I gave as part of a panel at the Manning Conference in Ottawa. My subject was the normalization of anti-Semitism in the progressive playbook. Afterward, Reyhana Patel, Head of Government and External Relations for Islamic Relief Canada came up to the stage with a few companions to interrogate me (and I use the word advisedly). Every one of their questions struck me as—politically—more than the sum of its parts, and delivered with an undertone of menace that was not the least bit funny.
The first question (the gist, not having recorded the exchange): “Your talk was about hatred. Why did you not mention Islamophobia?” My response: “My talk was not about hatred in general; it was about a very specific form of hatred, anti-Semitism.”
My answer did not please them, I could see, and they asked the question a few more times with different wordings. They really didn’t get it: Even though most people today have internalized the “correct” notion that one cannot mention anti-Semitism without “wearing the ribbon” of Islamophobia, ages-old anti-Semitism and the newly coined Islamophobia are apples and oranges.
Many people actively dislike Islam tenets, and a whole lot of people are uncomfortable with the cultural norms in Islam-ruled regions, especially with regard to women’s and gay rights, but hatred of Muslims for being Muslims has simply not been a systemic form of hatred in the west. By contrast, few people actively dislike Judaic tenets, but millions of people, even those who have never met a Jew, hate Jews. Would it have annoyed Ms. Patel & co if I had added that nowhere is Jew hatred more pronounced or vicious than in Islam-dominated societies?
I was also reminded of the watered-down resolution the Democratic Party passed as a gesture of appeasement to Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar, whose overt anti-Semitism had motivated a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. In the end, responding to pressure from Omar’s circle of support—and completely vitiating the presenting reason for the exercise—it included Islamophobia and other forms of hatred. That’s the ribbon-wearing way it goes in progressive circles everywhere, but the fact that this kind of appeasement has crept into the Democratic Party looks to many observers like an alarming tipping point for the party’s drift. Special kudos go, therefore, to Republican Senator Ted Cruz for sponsoring a resolution against anti-Semitism in the senate, as the appropriate response to Ilhan’s bigotry.
Next, they wanted to know why I hadn’t tweeted out a condemnation of the New Zealand mosque massacre. Ah, so it appears my social media accounts were being monitored by their group to see if I was wearing the “ribbon” for the tragedy. If they had done a thorough check, they would have seen that I am a Kramer regarding most massacres in terms of offering my Twitter condolences.
Every massacre of innocents sicken me. But I don’t represent the government or any official body; this massacre happened in a foreign country; and if I made it a principle to offer condolences on every act of mass killing in the world, I would be doing little else. Not wearing the ribbon, not tweeting a condolence, doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected by the New Zealand massacre, and tweeting out a condolence wouldn’t have meant I was a better human being than those who didn’t.
I could not forbear mentioning that I generally don’t tweet condolences to the many Muslim victims of massacres by other Muslims either. (Do they?) That did not go over well, if I am accurately judging the stony glares I received. I inferred from their injured tone that my failure to tweet condolence was proof of the Islamophobia they already feel I am guilty of. I did not go so far as to ask if sentiments they would like to see expressed should be compelled in order to be free of charges of hate, but it would not surprise me if these people with the soft voices, tight smiles and hard eyes believed that might be a reasonable proposition.
On to their third complaint, namely my National Post column last month critiquing World Hijab Day, whose stated purpose is to encourage women of all religions and backgrounds to wear and experience the hijab. (One of my female interlocutors was wearing a hijab; Reyhana Patel was not.)
I explained to them that I do not see the point of an official “day” celebrating religious proselytism. I added that I would be just as critical of a “World Crucifix Day” and surely they could see the awkwardness of that. They gave me the same unblinking looks of non-comprehension as before. The woman in the hijab pointed out that nobody is forcing me to wear the hijab, only suggesting it, so what is wrong with that?
I then had to tread where I didn’t want to. Not wishing to ratchet up the frostiness, I did not flatly state my belief that the hijab is a symbol of misogyny, I only explained that the hijab is a politically charged symbol, exactly as I had laid it out in my column. There are many women in the world that are forced to wear the hijab, surely they admit that, and if they do, can they not see the problem with promoting it? (In fact, some of my most forceful allies on this topic, like Sky News anchor Rita Panahi, are Muslim women who once did wear the hijab under duress and liberated themselves from it in adulthood.)
They apparently do not see the problem at all, because their response was more scowling, and a reiteration of the fact that nobody has to wear it, and that there is nothing wrong with advertising it. For anyone who wants a more elaborate understanding of my feelings about the hijab, please view my 2017 IdeaCity presentation: “How to Launder a Hijab.”
My encounter with these critics was unsettling, and meant to be. In retrospect, I see a certain irony in the air of righteousness that permeated their attitude. Because afterward I did a little research into the background of Patel’s umbrella organization, Islamic Relief Worldwide, whose presenting purpose—and actual activity, to be fair—is directed at fund-raising for the alleviation of global poverty. All power to them for that. But that is not all they do.
I invite you to consult this exhaustively researched and meticulously annotated report on Islamic Relief, drawn up by the extremely reliable Middle Eastern Forum. It is an illuminating document. Here is a statement from the report’s conclusion that struck me as most pertinent to the moral right of any representative of that organization to stand in judgment of me:
Islamic Relief is an Islamist institution. It was established by the Muslim Brotherhood and today continues to be run by key Brotherhood officials. It has funding arrangements with extremist and terrorist institutions, employs and appoints staff and trustees who express hatred for Jews and the West and provides platforms on a monthly basis to extremist preachers who spew anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic rhetoric.
People in single-pane glass houses should not throw stones. If I had read this report before Ms. Patel and her allies rode over on their high horses to pontificate on my “Islamophobic” tendencies, I would have refused to engage with them, and told them to go take a hike.