Martin Peretz: “Muslim life is cheap, and I mean it.”

Martin Peretz, Editor-in-Chief of the New Republic, has offered an apology for one of two statements singled out yesterday by Nicolas Kristof in his New York Times column.  Both statements appeared in the concluding paragraph of a post at Peretz’s blog “The Spine”:

But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, 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.

The immediate context for these statements was Peretz’s observation of recent acts of terror that, according to Peretz – somehow able to survey the entirety of a discourse embracing one-sixth of the world’s population – went largely unremarked by Muslims.  This observation, alongside the notion that it “defines their brotherhood,” is, in its way, even more offensive and embarrassing than the statements Kristof criticized.  That the reports that happen to make their way to Peretz’s desk seem deaf to the cries of the bereaved, and of other observers, means only that they do not exist for Peretz, not that they do not exist at all.

At this blog we have observed furious and heart-rending denunciations of such acts, written by Muslim observers – such as Pakistani writer Kamran Shafi’s lament over attacks on peaceful Sufis by Jihadists. Likewise, there is no justification to the charge laid at the feet of “those Muslims led by Imam Rauf”:  Imam Feisal has frequently and full-throatedly denounced all forms of terrorism and violence, and has repeatedly sought to bring to our attention the suffering of “innocent life” in the Muslim world.  What he may have failed to do is to accept without question the implicit assumption of people like Peretz, and especially to Peretz’s right, that “our” hands are entirely clean.

The particular sentence that Peretz agrees was ill-considered was “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”  When I first read the statement, I assumed Peretz was writing imprecisely, and meant to refer to the Park51 people alone.  That would be odious enough, but his apology suggests that he originally meant the words to apply to all Muslim Americans.  He claims not to really think that way, and I don’t mind accepting his apology:  I won’t hold the statement against the next time I join him and other politerati at an exclusive cocktail party, though I reserve the right to question the judgment and wisdom of his “gut.”

In any event, however one feels about Mr. Peretz and his gut after reading the former’s apology, the statement was uttered, and I think it tells us something about Islamophobia in America’s intellectual class.  There are a lot of other people who in my opinion have said and written things over the last few months that they ought to regret, and many others who have refrained from saying things – things like “Hey, get a grip!” – that I believe they should have.  And I think this goes for the second sentence denounced by Kristof, but which Peretz stands by defiantly.  His non-apology begins by quoting it again:

“Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims.” This is a statement of fact, not value. In his column, Kristof made this seem like a statement of bigotry. But on his blog, he notes that he concurs with it. “Peretz makes some points that are valid, and I agree with him that Muslims haven’t said nearly enough about those Muslims who kill other Muslims—in Kurdish areas, in Iraq, in Western Sahara, in Sudan, and so on.”

First, contrary to Peretz’s assertion, any statement about “cheap”-ness is inherently a statement of value.  A religious or morally serious individual might say, for instance, that every Muslim life, like every other life, is of infinite “value,” beyond “valuation” – and who is to say that this contradictory statement is not equally or more a “fact”?   Peretz refers to a virtual marketplace in which “Muslim life” counts as “cheap,” but that remains a relativistic statement, of a price relative to other, unmentioned prices.  In the most important sense, Kristof’s “concurrence” is not really a concurrence with Peretz’s sentiment, and certainly not with his choice of words.

When someone says that “life is cheap,” the statement can usually be taken in one of two ways:  Either as a criticism, or as an excuse.  Sometimes, it may start out or be intended one way, but end up being taken the other way.  The problem highlighted in Peretz’s morally obtuse self-justification is that American political intellectuals, especially on the right, do treat Muslim life as cheap.  They may, like Peretz, start out meaning to criticize Muslims for taking the lives of their fellow Muslims cheaply, but they end up adopting this view themselves – even to the point of musing about denying Muslim-Americans the rights that we supposedly consider inalienable and equal.

Denying someone the right to speak leads almost immediately to refusing to hear them when they go ahead and speak anyway, and then to refusing to count their very lives equally.  The logic works in the opposite direction, too:  Look no further than Martin Peretz’s blog- and gut-work, or consider how the “modern conservative” David Frum tallied up the costs of the War on Terror in a recent nine-years-after-9/11 column:

Nobody would claim that the United States and its allies have gotten everything right these past nine years. Many mistakes have been made, much money wasted. But if we’re going to take stock, let’s take stock impartially, and remember how much was gotten wrong these past years by those who today complain of “over-reaction.”

For Frum, it seems, all life is rather cheap – the human “costs” of the War on Terror hardly figure into his overview, except for the 3,000 casualties of 9/11 that he mentions at the beginning of the piece.  Since so much more Muslim life, including civilian life, has been sacrificed on the altar of the American “reaction” to 9/11, this summary in fact represents a profound “cheapening” – value zero, or whatever sum you get if you choose to divide “many mistakes” by the raw numbers of the collateral dead.  Or consider how Imam Feisal  has been pilloried, virtually read out of the national community – accused of bad intentions, deception, virtual treason; treated as a potential terrorist or recruiter of terrorists – for his statements over the years on behalf of “Muslim life” lost not just since 9/11, but before.  He dared to seek to remind Americans, of countries and peoples whose losses, in proportionate and absolute terms, dwarf 9/11. Doing so apparently amounts to a thought crime in America, the crime of unforgivably unpatriotic insensitivity, at least from the perspective of the center to the right. Much of the “responsible” – superficially less-Islamophobic – opposition to the Park51 project centers on crimes of this sort:  Freedom of speech, thought, and conscience does not apply to those whose life is cheap.

As my own criminal reminder, here’s a chart that leading thought-criminal Stephen Walt put together on the subject.  It focuses on U.S. vs. U.S.-caused casualties, conservatively counted, over the last generation’s confrontation with the Muslim world:

Iraqi civilians have suffered, proportionately, something on the order of 500 9/11s since 9/11, and as many or more before 9/11.  Similar statements could be made about the long-suffering peoples of Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, both in regard to “Muslims who kill other Muslims,” as per Peretz, but more than equally in terms of Muslims killed by us or our allies – by bomb, missile, shell, and bullet, and also by policy.

I sometimes wonder if the only thing that keeps our Muslim friends and incidental allies from laughing out loud at our 9/11 observances and “sensitivities,” other than perhaps a more profound understanding and respect before matters of life and death, regardless of the raw numbers, however valorized, is the fact that they know how brittle we are in our self-righteousness:  That, to us, as Martin Peretz insists, Muslim life is cheap, certainly relative to non-Muslim life in our own eyes – and that we remain ready at almost any time to prove it all over again.  No doubt we benefit from the deterrent effect of “30 eyes for an eye,” but it distorts and deforms our national life and moral self-consciousness.  It may be worth remembering also that gross imbalances in any “market” do have a way, sooner or later, of evening out.

17 comments on “Martin Peretz: “Muslim life is cheap, and I mean it.”

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  1. Kamran Shafi’s voice isn’t usually heard here, it is usually this or that Islamist mouthpiece, which is very general in the violence that occurs in Moslem countries and seem to draw a beed on any action that the West might engage in, Walt seems to follow this same pattern of behavior, clearly have not atoned enough, to balance the scales correctly. But Effendi Khan can speculate on unorthodox theories about how the towers fell, the good Imam can find a hundred ways to cheer Shariah, and some wil still focus on the Anti Masonic movement. The Pentagon will harrumph about work place violence in Killeen, and we continue to serve Israel up to the functional equivalent of the Black Hundred

  2. miguel cervantes wrote:

    But Effendi Khan can speculate on unorthodox theories about how the towers fell,

    Yes, he can. It’s called being an American citizen. You should look into it. Assuming you care about what that means. Not clear. Same goes for the Imam, who, I dare say, knows more about Sharia than you do, and has a right to seek to advance his own view of it, just like you, just like anyone else.

    “Anti-Masonic movement”?

  3. My in-group right or wrong is difficult to rise above. More so when we perceive the in-group threatened or actively under attack. Additionally, we tend to over value what’s right in front of us rather than what’s down the road.

    Commenting on an earlier post I used the phrase “blood and soil”. Because the US includes so many “bloods” it’s hard to apply the phrase. But it still works if only to exclude certain “bloods” even if those included is left vague.

  4. That wasn’t the first time that Peretz has written about Arabs being less valuable beings than Jews and you wouldn’t want to know what the crazy son-of-a-gerbil goes around saying.

    I’d say that he goes around licking JDL ass, except that the thought would likely light up his night.

  5. Fuster wrote:

    you wouldn’t want to know what the crazy son-of-a-gerbil goes around saying

    I’m guessing it’s a lot like what’s creeping into the blog posts at places like Contentions or the Corner, only more foul.

    As I’ve said before, the best, largely unacknowledged benefit of the whole Cordoba Initiative has been the way that it’s exposed how certain people think, and presumably have been thinking all along. The bad part is that those certain people seem to be somewhat influential, and are attached to a political movement whose fortunes are currently on the rise, partly as a result of playing to those out-group/in-group reflexes bob mentions.

    That said, if Martin Peretz wanted to open a Jewish community center within a couple of blocks of GZ, I wouldn’t care. miguel, no doubt, would be up in arms.

  6. We’ve seen what Shariah law is in practice, and it’s not good. It’s remarkable how nonjudgementalism seems to reflect only against your own side. Yes, she is entitled to deny that the single greatest death toll in New York not associated with natural events, a deliberate act
    applauded by many of his coreligionists, but that should weigh in how
    we judge the validity of this project, that is dead, Norwegian blue
    parrot dead, just like the International Freedom Museum.

  7. @ miguel cervantes:
    You seem to be confused: The 9/11 Truther Khan is not a “she.” Did you think it was Daisy?

    What Shariah, under the Imam’s understanding as opposed to the McCarthyistic one, is “in practice” would likely be a tremendous improvement in many parts of the world, including parts of the US of A.

  8. @ CK MacLeod:

    The intesity of this kind of rhetoric is, I think, pretty proportional to the intensity of perceived threat. Certainly many are cynically using it to advance careers. But a lot of people feel their in group is very threatened. And they identify their in group with the country as a whole. This is where it gets dangerous.

  9. @ miguel cervantes:
    Are these continual links to pieces by Howard and JED supposed to remind me to feel ashamed about getting them gigs at HotAir? Why shouldn’t I just conclude that they all deserve each other? So, if that’s your purpose, you can stop. Otherwise, we know that Howard and JED, like hundreds of other bloggers, crank out material day after day. If you have some other purpose, perhaps some idea about why a particular post merits attention, or, even better, actually relates to a given post or thread discussion, it would be helpful and polite for you to explain as much succinctly.

  10. bob wrote:

    But it still works if only to exclude certain “bloods” even if those included is left vague.

    A situation in which fear/hatred of a single group was used to unite all of the other groups would not be unique to contemporary history. It’s been argued rather persuasively – through an analysis of documentary evidence, chiefly – that there was no consciousness of an American “white race,” for instance, until disparate American colonists, very early on, recognized the “savages” as everyone else’s “other.” Tea Party Conservatism may be driven by inchoate fear of someday becoming precisely that group – a fear that tracks with many classic political tropes associated with white racism, but cannot be identified with it.

    The intesity of this kind of rhetoric is, I think, pretty proportional to the intensity of perceived threat. Certainly many are cynically using it to advance careers. But a lot of people feel their in group is very threatened. And they identify their in group with the country as a whole. This is where it gets dangerous.

    In the absence of an escalating war – fought on recognizable ground – the “perceived threat” itself would threaten to detach those plunged into illimitable emotionalism from larger society – perhaps with the help of the never-very-impressed intellectual/media professionals, who will be happy to depict the bigots and obsessives as psychological “cases,” once it feels safe to do so. The lunacy and foul inhumanity are still more on the level, I think, of a Summer fever than It Can’t Happen Here. But that doesn’t mean that real harm won’t be done in the meantime, or result later on, perhaps after America has convinced itself that it’s “moved on.”

  11. You know Peretz, has a lot to apologize for, but I don’t think this column is one of them, the world gangs up on Israel, pushes the academic boycott, for it’s stubborn denial to stop defending itself,
    Increasingly that seems to be the complaint about this country,
    Imam Rauf, at best seems a variant of the culture that spawned that Ward Churchill fellow, at worst, he abetts the Islamist culture. The
    details don’t really count, we’ve seen what the Imam is selling and we’re not buying, it’s very Pauline Kael for the Times not to figure
    that out

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