One evening, not many years ago, at a dinner of the Harvard Divinity School Leadership Council, I asked editor Jon Meacham why Newsweek got its Islam reporting so wrong so often. His glib reply was, “It took us decades to get it right on Judaism — we need more time to get it right on Islam.”
Newsweek still doesn’t get it.
This week, as mayhem and murder racked the Muslim world in the aftermath of the YouTube video, “Innocence of Muslims,” Newsweek’s cover story was “Muslim Rage.” Ignoring for the moment the prejudice reflected in that title (imagine seeing “Christian Rage” or “Jewish Rage” on a cover), the lead was written by controversial Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a selection that reflected a pre-determined bias by Newsweek’s editors.
The result was an anti-Islam exceptionalist polemic; Meacham’s heirs still don’t get it.
Today, the demonstrations that continue to rage across the Muslim world are a godsend for Islamophobes who fulminate against the imagined dangers that “Islamism” poses to enlightened Westerners.
Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” where Meacham is often a guest, smugly offered, “They hate us because they hate us.”
Sometimes words are said that are simply stupid. Smug and stupid.
Muslims pose no danger to “Morning Joe.” Muslim demonstrators, particularly those victims of poverty and ignorance who are particularly susceptible to the manipulations of their leaders, are acting against their own community interests — not ours.
Edmund Burke wrote: “Those who have been once intoxicated with power, and have derived any kind of emolument from it, even though but for one year, never can willingly abandon it …; but they will never look to anything but power for their relief.”
This is true of the Muslim preachers, dictators, monarchs and politicians who have mobilized the streets, using the pretext of a film, in order to consolidate their authority.
It is true of Islamophobes like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. It is true of politicians like Michele Bachmann and Allen West, whose careers are based, in part, on hatred of the Other.
It is true, sadly, in 2012 America, with its strong anti-immigrant feelings and a Republican opposition that wants to portray President Obama as the Other, Muslim and non-American. Lies about Obama’s birth and religion, and lies about Obama’s so-called “apologies” and sympathies are bigoted attempts of disenfranchisement appealing to America’s dark side. Americans like their explanations simple; No nuances, metaphors or allegories, and that is a weakness President Obama’s opponents happily exploit.
And it is true of the pundits, of the intellectually lazy and unchallenged who, insulated from the real world in their studios and drawing rooms, whose children don’t have to go off to war, can quote anonymous sources and regurgitate conventional wisdom from inside the beltway.
People are dying over a movie, they say, how stupid. If only it was that simple. Muslims are dying, our troops are dying — over a movie?
A thoughtful letter in the Portsmouth Herald addressed to me said in part, “I can promise you what any outrage in that case would not entail, Mr. Azzi: a murdered ambassador. Nor suicide bombings, nor nightclub and hotel attacks, nor hijacked aircraft flown into buildings.”
That may be true.
But can you promise that no one will shoot up a Sikh temple or torch a mosque? Can you promise that no one will blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City? That no one will send federal agents into Ruby Ridge or Waco? Can you say that no one will, for some inexplicable moment of rage, shoot up a theater in Aurora Colo., a school in Columbine, Colo., or a university at Virginia Tech?
Are we without sin?
Can you promise me that no one will blow up a women’s health care center that provides abortions, and that no one will publish the address of doctors that provide abortions so they can be assassinated?
Can you promise that we won’t assassinate an American citizen, without trial, in Yemen or target a funeral procession in Pakistan? That we won’t torture or engage in extraordinary renditions? Can you promise that the United States won’t support occupation and oppression of other peoples?
Are we without sin?
None of the above excuses or justifies the murders in Benghazi or deaths across the Muslim world. When power is perceived as disproportionate, responses are often asymmetrical. We have the First Amendment. They have fear. We have drones. They have the streets.
To the humiliated, to the dispossessed, to the angry and powerless, is it not possible that they think that an America that can deploy drones to strike with precision in Waziristan also has the power to restrict a movie that defames Islam?
So Muslims protest, and it seems violent, harsh and primitive, which it is — but it is all they have. Conversely, Americans have many protest weapons. An educated citizenry petitions and protests with ballots. Competing media markets carve out economically sustainable constituencies. Citizens United empowers corporations to act like citizens, often anonymously.
When Learning Channel TV presented the reality show, “All American Muslim,” Lowe’s Corp., under pressure from the Florida Family Association, pulled its advertising. Whenever Al-Jazeera English, one of the world’s best global satellite networks, attempts to expand into U.S. cable markets, local protests often keep them off the air.
That is how Americans protest. We get that. But we’re also getting shortchanged. The smugness of a Joe Scarborough or Jon Meacham, or bigotry of a Michele Bachmann, keeps Americans from engaging in truth.
Our smugness keeps us from worrying about the cost of sending our sons and daughters off to war, whether as troops or ambassadors. Our smugness keeps us from facing the consequences of those deployments when they return home.
The protests are not about Islam or YouTube. It is about power and politics — on both sides. The dynamics of Islam’s political resurgence and Arab Awakening roils much of the Muslim world and many rulers are still attempting to govern though combinations of force, tribal nationalism and religious ignorance. On America’s part, so we aren’t isolated within an Amero-centric bubble separate from the world, we need generosity of spirit, knowledge, understanding and a lot of patience to maintain our vital, regional, strategic security interests.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.