Predictable but depressing. Given the current popularity of “dual loyalty” insinuations against American Jews (even in supposedly progressive cricles), you’d think there’d be a little Jewish outrage over essentially identical arguments being used against American Muslims. This Dec. 28 column by Jonathan Tobin from Pennsylvania’s Jewish Exponent (barely) pays lip service to such concerns, but ultimately (and idiotically) cannot contain its glee that the loyalty of a Muslim congressman is being questioned:
In late November, radio talk-show host and columnist Dennis Prager penned an article criticizing an incoming member of Congress for announcing that he would take the oath of office in January by swearing upon a Koran.
Prager is a respected Jewish author who was recently added to the roster of the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which governs the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But he was publicly spanked by a wide variety of commentators and groups (including the Memorial Council) when he wrote that Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim to serve in Congress, ought not to be allowed to substitute a Koran for a Bible.
Prager’s argument was that even though the swearing-in ceremony itself was symbolic (members are legally sworn without benefit of texts to swear on), the act of substituting a Koran for a Bible would be a rebuke to “the unifying value system that has formed this country.”
But Prager was skating on thin rhetorical ice. He claimed he was not trying to create a religious test for office, but that is exactly what his polemic seemed like. Many Jewish groups joined with others to rebuke the talk-show personality for making it seem as if a Muslim was somehow unwelcome on Capitol Hill.
Free to Swear
Having spent centuries fighting for the right of religious minorities to serve in government without giving up their own faith, it hardly behooved a prominent voice of Jewry to be found saying that a Muslim could not choose to swear on his own religious book. Incredibly, Prager went as far as to say that Jews who choose to swear their oaths on Bibles without the Christian New Testament included were also wrong.
Though Prager is correct about the central role of belief in Christianity in creating and protecting our freedoms, his attempt to treat a religious text as a requirement was out of line. Ellison — and anyone else — ought to be free to swear on anything he or she likes.
Rather than provoke a debate about the legitimacy of rejection of the Bible, the firestorm Prager ignited merely served to reinforce a politically correct backlash against anyone who might question Ellison.
Yet as wrong as Prager was about the oath, the dust-up over the Koran obscures a far more interesting and more important issue that lies beneath its surface. The unease about Ellison ought not to be obscured by a foolish argument that smells like bigotry to the average fair-minded American.
The ascension of the first Muslim to Congress is a notable achievement, and one which all Muslim-Americans ought to take pride. One cannot any longer speak of our public square being inhabited by “Protestant-Catholic- Jew,” as writer Will Herberg did half-a-century ago in his famous essay of that name. Now, we must add “Muslim” to that formulation, along with, perhaps, “and others.”
That such a moment would come at a time when so many of Ellison’s co-religionists are waging war on the United States abroad is an irony that speaks volumes about the seriousness of American democracy’s commitment to religious pluralism.
But while neither Prager nor Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), who later echoed the columnist’s stand, has the right to dictate a swearing-in text, it’s not unfair for us to ponder whether this congressman or others are prepared to defend the values that our system is set up to protect.
Unlike the current perilous situation in France and Britain, the demography of immigration to this country is not dominated by those with ties to Islamist foes of the West. The conquering spirit of jihad that has cowed so much of Europe into silence via intimidation (such as the murder of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch critic of Islam, or the suppression of European newspapers who sought to print Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad) has not yet found a foothold here.
But it would be foolish to pretend that Americans can remain immune to such conflicts.
Though America largely knows Ellison today only through the free (and overwhelmingly favorable) press that Prager’s jibes brought him, the Minnesotan actually has a checkered history worth examining.
In fact, Ellison was long associated with people who represent the worst in American Islam, such as the Nation of Islam’s despicable leader Louis Farrakhan (whose “Million Man March” Ellison helped to organize). Though he now disavows such ties, in this sense, Ellison is typical of the leadership of American Muslims.
Though the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not support radical Islam, the groups — such as the ubiquitous Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR — that purport to speak for them are riddled with apologists for Islamism and the terrorism with which it is rightly associated.
Yet in the name of pluralism and an abhorrence of being put in the same kind of spot that Prager recently found himself, many of us fear to take them on. Indeed, as long as our primary response to proponents of Islamism in this country is to treat them as alleged victims of persecution — rather than as the proper target of federal prosecution — then we will be missing the real issue.
And on it goes in this repulsive mode. At least, in contrast, the Philadelphia Inquirer in its Dec. 28 editorial seems aware of the cognitive dissonance of extolling the superiority of Western values while acting like an intolerant zealot:
House can stand diversity; it’s bias that’s the affront
Rep. Virgil Goode Jr. (R., Va.) stooped to a new level in bigotry by ranting about the nation’s first elected Muslim congressman, who wants to use the Koran for his ceremonial swearing-in next month.
In a letter to colleagues, Goode referred obnoxiously to “the Muslim representative from Minnesota,” Democratic Rep.-elect Keith Ellison.
A Minnesota lawyer, Ellison converted to Islam as a college student.
Goode warned of more Muslims being elected to Congress unless lawmakers get tough on immigration.
“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America,” he wrote.
Conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager, a presidential appointee to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum board, entered the fray, saying Ellison should give up his post if he would not take his oath on a Bible. But after the museum board passed a resolution chastising Prager, he said he had misspoken.
President Bush, who in pushing immigration reform has spoken so eloquently about America as a melting pot of cultures and religions, has been urged to admonish Prager and Goode. He should comment, but has so far declined.
Congress, confronting a global war rooted in religious conflict, certainly has room for its first Muslim representative. What there is no room for is the blatant bias fostered by Congressman Goode.
Regarding the San Francisco Indymedia story on anti-AIPAC protests we cited above (“supposedly progressive circles”): Please note that we have no problem whatsoever with protests against AIPAC, which are always well-earned. Our problem (as we have said before) is with “dual loyalty” arguments that play into reactionary America-first nationalism—and conspiratorial thinking that makes AIPAC culpable for rather than complicit with the Iraq invasion. This is the historic role of anti-Semitism: providing a Jewish scapegoat for the crimes of imperial power. Maybe one day Jews will figure out which side their bread is buttered on…