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.