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Book of Matthew: My letter to Marty Peretz

Published: September 17, 2010
Section: Opinions

Dear Mr. Peretz,

This is one of two letters sent to you from Brandeis—the other being a petition signed by five hundred students. The petition calls for you to apologize for remarks you made about Muslims in your Sept. 4 blog post on The Spine. My name is on that petition as well, but I thought, given that you have already issued an apology of sorts, that I would send you some of my own thoughts on the matter.

First of all, Nicholas Kristof was correct in calling you out for your most egregious statement in that post. “But, frankly,” you wrote, “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 the 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.”

Kristof focused on that first and last sentence, and it was he, I presume, who prompted you to write an apology. In it, you wrote that upon further reflection your last sentence—regarding First Amendment rights—“genuinely embarrasses” you. “I wrote that, but I do not believe that,” you wrote in your post.

I have to ask, Mr. Peretz, what does that even mean? Were you caught up in such a fit of passion while writing that you wrote without thinking? Or do you typically write words that you do not believe? If you are going to admit that you are wrong about something, just admit it. Tell us how you learned from your mistakes; teach us something. But don’t pretend that you never meant to write a sentence that appears prominently in your published work. I expect that sort of cheap ploy from dishonest politicians. Not the editor-in-chief of The New Republic. Not from a Brandeis graduate.

And then there’s your other statement—which, to my amazement, you don’t even apologize for in a post titled “An Apology.” You call your assertion that “Muslim life is cheap” a “statement of fact,” as if you can make general assertions about the ways in which the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims view their own lives, based on the actions of a tiny percentage of their number. This is a foolish—and dangerous—way of thinking. Look at it from another point of view: Christians kill each other all the time. Detroit and New Orleans, for example, were ranked alongside Baghdad and Karachi in CNN’s list of the ten most dangerous cities in the world. The former two cities are predominantly Christian and have a high murder rate, yet no one is threatening American Christians with the loss of their First Amendment rights if they fail to condemn these killings. No one is accusing Christian life of being “cheap.”

I could go on providing more specific examples, but I believe Kristof—who has seen much more of the world than I have—says it better in his blog when he responds to your apology. (By the way, he doesn’t buy the “Muslim life is cheap” argument either).

I’ve read a lot of your work in the past few days, Mr. Peretz, and I must say that you have quite a history of singling out Muslims, often unfairly. In your Sept. 2 blog post on The Spine, you argue that there is no Muslim demand for an Islamic cultural center at ground zero, and cite a poll done by the Arabic-language online daily Elaph to prove it. You also talk about the project’s financial difficulties. Both of these are fair points that merit discussion, but instead of doing that, you spend the second half of your post focusing on the name of the proposed center: “Cordoba.”

You quote a long passage that also originates in Elaph, and was reposted on Answering Islam, an evangelical Christian website that purports to create an online “Christian-Muslim dialogue.” The author of the passage claims that the choice of the name “Cordoba” was “not an innocent one,” but actually “indicated a longing for the resumption of Islamic futuhat (conquests) throughout the world.” He then argues that Muslims show no remorse for the death and enslavement that occurred during the conquest of Cordoba—the area in Spain held under Islamic rule from the 8th through the 13th century.

The author—and by extension, you—ignores the truth of Cordoba’s history. The city itself was one of the most scientifically advanced places in the world under Islamic rule, and home to the world’s largest library: The Great Mosque of Cordoba. Here, Muslim scholars translated hundreds of thousands of ancient Greek documents. Most importantly, Jews and Christians who lived in Cordoba were allowed to practice their religions freely—something that could not be said for most other cities in Europe at the time. Perhaps you ought to do a little more fact checking before writing posts in the future.

Frankly, Mr. Peretz, when I first became aware of your blogging I immediately thought that President Reinharz and the Brandeis Alumni Association should have retracted the Alumni Achievement Award you received last year, and removed you from the various Notable Alumni lists that appear on the school website. I don’t believe I was the only one of my peers to feel this way, either.

Of course, this will never happen. Through speaking with Senior Vice President for Communications and External Affairs Andrew Gully, I learned that even though the Administration has been following the story, it has no plans to take any action. You are one of Brandeis’s favorite sons in the world of journalism, and many are proud to say that a former editor-in-chief of the Justice went on to cover national news. Your service on the Board of Trustees doesn’t hurt your image either.

So, instead of asking the impossible of the Administration, I will ask something of you, Mr. Peretz: Get out of the office and start asking questions. You have been sitting in your armchair generalizing the feelings of an entire people for too long. Ask Imam Rauf why he is building an Islamic cultural center in New York. Ask moderate Muslims why they feel uncomfortable condemning their more radical brethren. Better yet, come back to Waltham and pay a visit to your alma mater. I imagine that there are many students—Muslims and non-Muslims—who would be only too happy to sit down with you and have a discussion. You might even learn a bit about the discomfort moderate Jews feel about criticizing Israel.

Your views aside, Mr. Peretz, you are still one of the great veterans of the journalism world. In this modern day, when too many Internet journalists and bloggers prefer to inflame rather than inform, it would be nice to know that you still find value in seeking the truth.

Impressions Editor’s note: A copy of this column was mailed to Marty Peretz at The New Republic.