Priest: “And this offends you as a Jewish person.”
Jerry: “No, it offends me as a comedian.”
–Seinfeld, “The Dentist” episode
The New York Times has run (still another) article about how Sharia law coming to America is nothing to fear. Question: Will the New York Times ever run an op-ed opposing Sharia law in the United States? Twenty years ago I would have said: Of course, any responsible newspaper publishes one piece on each side of an issue. Today, of course, we know there is no chance of balance.
Eliyahu Stern, an assistant professor of religious studies and history at Yale, seems to be an expert on Jewish history. In fact, Stern is so ignorant of the topic on Islam that he states most Muslims in America “don’t even come from the Middle East (the majority have roots in Southeast Asia).” Really? That’s a geographical term usually applied to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Perhaps he meant Pakistan, a well-known locale of moderate Islam? If anyone on the other side said something so obviously ridiculous they would never be taken seriously.
And the fact that the Times editors left in such a glaring factual error shows professional inadequacy and ignorance. But then this is the newspaper that let Tariq Ramadan claim that the Muslim Brotherhood (then headed by his grandfather) was an anti-fascist organization when every serious historian knows that it collaborated with the Nazis in preparing to turn over Egypt to Hitler and massacre the Jews there. (The documentary proof of this is in my book –written with Wolfgang Schwanitz – Nazis, Radical Arabs, and the Making of the Modern Middle East to be published by Yale University Press in 2012.)
Why then is Stern writing that there’s no need to fear Sharia law in America? Well, he apparently has just one argument: once people warned about Jewish law being dangerous, that was wrong, and we all know where that ended up. This is not exactly a brilliant argument for many reasons. The proportion of Jews was far lower than Muslim populations in the West are quickly becoming; Jews do not expect anyone else to observe their law or change behavior; there was never any question of compulsion within the community. Most Jews were not so religious and did not view themselves governed by Jewish law, except perhaps in the matter of very narrow issues regarding marriage and divorce that had no effect on the wider society.
To cite one famous incident that sort of reveals the difference, the baseball player Hank Greenberg became an American Jewish hero for refusing to play in the World Series on Yom Kippur. No Jew would have thought of demanding the World Series be changed to another day. Or, to give another example, Jews would never think of demanding that public facilities install special equipment or rooms for their needs at taxpayer expense, nor insist that work places shut down to permit them to pray, nor that kosher food had to be provided or else, nor that publications better censor themselves or they would face legal action and perhaps violent retribution. If passengers in taxi cabs were regularly bringing pigs into the vehicles–the equivalent of Muslim cabdrivers with guide dogs and even alcohol in some cases–Jewish cabdrivers wouldn’t have refused them service — they would have found another line of employment.
And then there are those little details like Jews not periodically kidnapping and murdering women for their social behavior or coreligionists who wanted to convert to other religions. Jews didn’t demand time off in the work day to pray and sue if it weren’t granted to them. They “knew their place” instead of demanding that others yield to them. Well, over 2000 years of being a dominated people had taught them to keep a low profile and avoid trouble. In contrast, Islam really does have the sense of being a ruling religion before which others must make concessions.
Such points do not reveal some irrational fear or hatred of Islam but are merely well-known facts. I often reflect that the phrase “Politically Correct” should be contrasted to the usual democratic, Enlightenment and Western norm of being Factually Correct. Political Correctness–as opposed to just plain politeness–is an approach that advocates telling lies because that’s really “better” for us all. But that’s not true, even for Muslims themselves who are the most frequent victims of Islamic practices being imposed on them or dominated by intolerant radicals.
It’s like the extensive arguments about why “Islamophobia” exists that never mention anything about terrorist attacks. You know, sort of like the upcoming official commemorations of the tenth anniversary of September 11 that will be careful not to say anything about who did it and why. Would Stern write or the New York Times publish an article about how mosques are the institution most likely to spread antisemitism today, or the prevalent hatred of Jews that comes from even the most sophisticated circles in the Muslim-majority world? Of course not.
The simple truth is that Stern has no valid or serious argument to make on this Sharia issue. He simply felt like writing an op-ed and the Times published it because it said the “right” thing. The Times has no professionally journalistic reason to run this op-ed except that it takes the only side the newspaper deems worthy of airing and may be seen as shoring up its Jewish readership and taking advantage of any repugnance to the Holocaust and antisemitism to sell the issue stance the newspaper wants.