Belated reply to Phil Orenstein about Debbie Almontaser and the KGIA

September 21, 2008

Phil Orenstein posted a reply, here, to my post More about the controversy over the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA). Phil, I’m sorry about the delay in moderating your comment, which was posted during my recent hiatus from this blog. Anyhow, here is my further reply.


Phil Orenstein posted a link to More on Fantasizing “The New McCarthyism”, a post on his own blog, “Democracy Project.”

He starts off by summarizing the original intent of his FrontPage article, which I had commented on in the post of mine that he’s replying to. His main point, apparently, had to do with a longstanding feud between two CUNY professors, Susan O’Malley and Sharad Karkhanis, which I’m in no position to comment on. I have not studied the personal history of these two professors and their feud, nor does it particularly interest me. I’m much more interested in what seems to me to be a very clearcut case of a trigger-happy witchhunt against Debbie Almontaser.

Phil Orenstein then dismisses, as “pure fantasy,” the existence of “a vast rightwing campaign of Islamophobia” featuring such tactics as guilt by association. But he then goes on to defend the use of guilt by association, as follows:

Associations provide much of the critical evidence to scrutinize public figures and to determine who your friends are. I assume you read my reference to Stormfronters (white nationalist group). Anecdotally, I had a couple of good friends who were part of an organization that was actually infiltrated by Stormfronters. When they determined to continue their associations with these loathsome people despite my entreaties, I disassociated myself from them.

Question: By “infiltrated,” does he mean that the Stormfronters held positions of authority in the organization, or merely that they joined as rank-and-file members, or something in between? If I had friends who were members of an organization that also happened to have some neo-Nazis as members, even as leading members, I wouldn’t necessarily ask them to disassociate from the organization; I would ask them either (1) to disassociate from the organization or (2) to work visibly within the organization to counteract the influence of the neo-Nazis.

Years ago, I once ran an online forum in which a few young neo-Nazis participated. I could have just expelled them from the forum, but decided, at that time, that it would be more interesting to debate with them. Two of them ended up growing away from neo-Nazi ideology, and I like to think I played at least a minor role in helping them to outgrow it. (I know I wasn’t the primary factor, though. The primary factor, for both of them, was simply getting to know some Jews. But I may have helped open their minds to the point where they would even consider becoming friends with Jews.) One of these young men was the son of neo-Nazi parents; and, the last time I heard from him, he was afraid that his parents might disown him because he had made some Jewish friends.

Anyhow, I’m not running for public office; but, if I were, would Phil Orenstein hold my past “association with neo-Nazis” against me, given that I “associated” with them only at a distance (online), and only for the purpose of trying to counteract their ideology? I’m not at all ashamed of the time I spent debating with these guys. Talking to people whose viewpoints one finds loathsome can be a very enlightening experience.

My point here is that people should be judged primarily by their own actions, not by their associations, especially if they associate with a very wide variety of people. A person’s associations aren’t totally irrelevant, but they should be at most a very secondary concern when judging people. The campaign against Debbie Almontaser focused primarily on her associations — and only on some of her associations, ignoring, for example, her association with the ADL.

To any Christians reading this (I’m not Christian myself), I should point out that judging people primarily by their associations would preclude hiring Jesus Christ, who caught quite a bit of flak for hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and assorted shady characters. (By the way, ancient Roman tax collectors were really awful people, more like mafiosi than like IRS agents today.)

Likewise if we are not vigilant in challenging Obama’s associations, if (God forbid) he becomes president, he might bring such unsavory figures as William Ayers, Rashid Khalidi, Robert Malley and others into advisory or staff roles in the White House ….

It is highly unlikely that William Ayers will ever become a White House staffer. I would be more concerned about Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Likewise if there was no public scrutiny of her associations, Almontaser might have populated the KGIA staff with her radical religious advisors and associates. On the other hand I take pride in my associations with such awesome figures as Dr. Karkhanis and Trustee Wiesenfeld and I am honored that such associations have influenced and contributed to my thinking. The hysterical lies directed at these fine individuals at the CUNY forum for performing their civic duty to try to close the ill-advised KGIA was beyond sanity.

Note how Orenstein considers it to have been a “civic duty” to try to close down the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) because of (among other things) worries about whom Debbie Almontaser might hire. Yet another trigger-happy argument against Debbie Almontaser and the KGIA.

Rather than trotting out hate crime statistics comparing anti-Muslim vs. anti-Jewish bigotry, you’ll have to admit that with our constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, the bottom line is that all religious groups enjoy unexcelled security and protection here in America. It’s a minority of psychopaths who are perpetrating the hate crimes against Jews and Muslims, not Jeff Wiesenfeld and company.

Yep, it’s true that only a tiny minority of people are committing full-blown religiously motivated hate crimes, in the sense of violent assaults, synagogue/mosque vandalism, etc. But the crusaders against Debbie Almontaser are doing something else, not outright criminal, but potentially affecting many more people: creating an atmosphere of paranoid fear of Muslims in public life.

However if you are truly concerned about bigotry, why don’t you try to help the one group that has fallen under the radar and suffers real persecution and death threats for their choices: the unbelievers. Muslim apostates are the targets of real “attacks” and threats of physical abuse. I sense you are a seeking person and this is where you can help desperate people who are crying out for caring people like yourself to intercede.

I agree that the plight of Muslim apostates, especially in Islamist countries, is a vitally important issue. The question is what we, here in the U.S.A., can do about the behavior of Islamist regimes overseas.

Beyond simply supporting the work of general human rights organizations like Amnesty International, I would say that any specific opposition to Islamist tyranny, in particular, should begin by acknowledging the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s historical role in creating and/or strengthening various Islamist regimes in the first place. (See the latest version of NYARBB position against both Islamism and anti-Muslim bigotry.) Without such acknowledgment, our denunciations of Islamist regines will be seen, by people in other countries, as hypocritical at best. Alas, I don’t think it’s likely that the U.S. foreign policy establishment will give up its strange love-hate relationship with (and frequent on-the-ground support for) Islamist regimes and Islamist terrorists any time soon, no matter who becomes President.

As for ex-Muslims here in the West, the main thing that’s needed is for ex-Muslims themselves to organize visible support networks. In the era of the Internet, this shouldn’t be too difficult, and it is already beginning to happen. Google “ex-Muslim” or “Muslim apostate” and quite a few websites will come up. There’s also an ex-Muslim section on Meetup, though not many people have signed up yet.

Don’t waste your time with dubious figures like Almontaser who are celebrated in the New York liberal media. Celebrities don’t need your help.

I don’t consider Debbie Almontaser a “celebrity.” Other than hardcore political activists in relevant causes, most people outside New York have never heard of her. An occasional article in the New York Times, even an occasional laudatory article, does not make someone a celebrity.

In any case, we as ordinary American citizens have more power over what goes on in our own backyards than over what goes on overseas. So, in my opinion, the fact that worse things happen overseas (e.g. the killing of ex-Muslims) is no excuse for ignoring bigotry in our own backyards.

Please read “Now They Call Me Infidel” by Nonie Darwish, and “Why We Left Islam” by Susan Crimp and Joel Richardson. These books may open your eyes.

Thanks for the book recommendations.

Phil Orenstein then responds to my various criticisms of Daniel Pipes’s writings mainly by citing Pipes’s academic credentials. Well, there are plenty of left-wing professors with impressive academic credentials too, whom Phil Orenstein isn’t so impressed by for whatever reason. So, merely citing Pipes’s credentials is far from an adequate rebuttal to my points. Orenstein then says:

She summarily discards the rest of Pipes’ arguments for vetting and judging KGIA and Ms. Almontaser accordingly, on the sole basis of her rejection of the notion of guilt by association. It seems odd that someone who claims to be a “not-very-knowledgeable” source is suddenly dictating to Daniel Pipes on Arabic language instruction and Islamic issues. Instead of attempting to go toe to toe with Pipes herself, shouldn’t she at least utilize “knowledgeable” sources in order to dispute Pipes?

I don’t have to be a scholar, or to cite scholars, to recognize guilt-by-association when I see it. There are other issues, requiring more specialized knowledge, on which I do not feel qualified to debate with Daniel Pipes. But I am qualifed to recognize basic errors in logic. This does not require specialized knowledge of any subject area, other than a clear understanding of basic logic itself. And Daniel Pipes, despite his scholarship, does commit some glaringly blatant logical fallacies, as I pointed out.

The point I was making is that while there are six times as many hate crimes against Jews as there are against Muslims, according to my above source, which she fact-checked as correct per FBI statistics, isn’t all the “Islamophobia” hysteria disproportionate?

But, as Orenstein himself correctly pointed out earlier, only a very small number of people are committing full-fledged hate crimes. On the other hand, polls have shown that mainstream social attitudes toward Muslims are a lot worse than mainstream social attitudes toward Jews — although, in many parts of the country, mainstream social attitudes toward Muslims are not quite as bad as mainstream social attitudes toward atheists. See the following:

Thus, here in the U.S.A., outright bigotry against Jews is more of a fringe phenomenon than is outright bigotry against Muslims and atheists.

Anyhow, I would also hazard a guess that, here in the United States, Muslims are subject to a lot more civil rights violations other than hate crimes. Certainly, many Muslims were arrested and detained for little or no reason in the panic that ensued after 9/11/2001. Fortunately, that panic has largely died down.

Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotry both exist and both are dangerous, though in different ways.

Besides being disproportionate, I argue, it appears to be well scripted and deliberate. As I said, “Eldahry, Almontaser and other self-proclaimed champions of diversity are crying “Islamophobia” in response to reasonable questions and concerns about the spread and infiltration of radical Islam in our public schools and colleges.” They apparently project excessive paranoia while hiding behind a veneer of multiculturalism in order to intentionally silence and demonize anyone who voices concerns about the “stealth jihad” which aims to sabotage American schools and cultural institutions.

I do not totally dismiss concerns about “stealth jihad.” However, trigger-happy panics against Muslim public figures are not an appropriate response, any more than trigger-happy panics against Christians would be an appropriate response to the stealth tactics of the Christian religious right wing.

Critics of the KGIA were justified in calling for greater openness, on the part of the Board of Education, about the KGIA curriculum. But, in the absence of actual knowledge about the curriculum, they were not justified in calling for closure of the school, or for the firing of Debbie Almontaser.

By virtue of her blogs which disproportionately advocate against anti-Muslim bigotry, I fear that Ms. Vera has been sucked in by this duplicity. If she is truly concerned about all forms of religious intolerance she should at least devote proportionately more blog real estate to the bigotry that is six times more prevalent against Jews.

As I’ve already explained in previous posts, my admittedly “disproportionate” focus on Muslims is for the purpose of figuring out where to draw the line between justified opposition to Islamism and groundless bigotry against Muslims a line which the crusaders against Debbie Almontaser have failed to draw.

If she were a fair minded activist, she should also investigate the double standard with respect to the widespread anti-Semitism on campus and on the other hand, the protected status of Muslims. I’ve documented some of the numerous unreported hate crimes against Jews on New York campuses, such as the desecration of a campus Menorah, swastikas painted on walls and Holocaust memorial posters, and others that are casually dismissed by administrators while these same politically correct hypocrites consider Muslims a protected group and stifle any serious examination of the threat of radical Islam. A case in point involved the students of Hillel at Pace University, who planned to show the film “Obsession” a film on the threat of radical Islam, who stood up to loud cries of “Islamophobia,” but were hauled into the dean’s office and threatened with police action when Pace administrators caved in to the protests of Muslim students.

The above-linked page, dated January 10, 2007, features a press release by the Hillel student group at Pace University, New York. The Hillel press release says:

There have been recent hate crimes against members of both the Jewish and Muslim faiths at Pace University, but the school only publicized the incidents involving Muslim students and reacted with indifference to the anti-Jewish hate crimes. Only the anti-Muslim incidents were the subject of Police Department investigations.

Hillel’s budget requests were largely denied, paperwork that Hillel had filled out mysteriously disappeared from Dean Clark’s office, causing delays and cancellations of planned Hillel events. A Campus Menorah was desecrated. A swastika was drawn on a Holocaust memorial event poster. Instead of labeling the events “hate crimes,” as they did when the Koran was put in a toilet, Pace’s administration is calling the events “bias incidents.”

If indeed all of this is true, such a double standard in reporting and investigating hate crimes is certainly wrong. Unfortunately, this story occurred back in 2006, and the relevant student organizations (Hillel and MSA) have had two academic years’ worth of turnover since then. So, investigating this story further will likely prove difficult.

Phil Orenstein is welcome to inform me about any similar incidents involving a double standard in enforcement of hate crime laws occurring more recently here in New York City. I can see no justifiable excuse for any such double standard, if indeed it exists. Although it’s probably true that Muslims are worse off than Jews in terms of other kinds of civil rights violations, that’s clearly not the case for hate crimes per se.

The Hillel press release is mainly about Pace University’s response to Hillel’s attempt to show the movie “Obsession,” a documentary “about Radical Islam and its war against the West.” Again, it’s a bit late for me to spend a lot of time researching that incident, too.

Regarding the movie “Obsession” itself, I have not yet seen it. Looking around for critical reviews, I found the following:

Brief comment: That last article refers to “the Jewish attack on modern-day Muslim civilization.” By no means do all Jews hold the same opinion about “modern-day Muslim civilization,” or about Israel, for that matter. There is indeed a particular line promoted by the major Jewish organizations, but many Jews dissent from it.

Anyhow, “Obsession” apparently includes an appearance by Walid Shoebat, an alleged former terrorist, about whom see The Jihad Seller by Richard Bartholomew, April 22, 2008. Shoebat has been accused, by various experts, of being a fraud.

Back to Phil Orenstein’s post More on Fantasizing “The New McCarthyism”.

Jews and Muslims alike are more secure in America than almost anywhere else in the world.

That is true, which is why New Yorkers Against Religion-Based Bigotry will probably focus more on the concerns of smaller religious minorities (e.g. modern Pagans) that are the targets of more bigotry, here in the U.S.A., than either Muslims or Jews.

However, opposing bigotry against Jews definitely will be on NYARBB’s agenda, as relevant current incidents arise here in New York City.

Next, Phil Orenstein says:

But beyond isolated anti-Semitic incidents, and the anti-Muslim hyperbole, there is a virulent campaign on campus of threats of genocide and death to the Jews, echoing the homicidal maniacs of the Middle East who do not conceal their blood-thirsty intentions, pledging to obliterate Israel, naming soccer stadiums after martyrs and indoctrinating school children in the glory of becoming suicide bombers to die killing Jews. Analogously, on American campuses, radical Islamic front groups “have sponsored such events as (annual) “Anti-Zionist Week” and anti-Semitic rallies and held conferences where speakers praised Hamas as they chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to the Jews.” At University of California, Irvine the Muslim Student Union (MSU), an anti-Semitic and anti-American campus group, recently held programs openly supporting terrorist groups and calling for the destruction of Israel with such titles as “Hamas: the People’s Choice” and “Israel: The 4th Reich.” While campus speech codes protect Muslims from offensive speech, the administrators closed their eyes to campus speech promoting terrorism and genocide of Jews, and remained silent when students who support Israel were threatened and harassed.

Both links in the above paragraph are to FrontPage articles. The first one, by Phil Orenstein himself, dated Wednesday, December 06, 2006, is about the Pace incident plus an incident at Brown University in which the MSA chapter successfully persuaded the local Hillel chapter not to invite Nonie Darwish to speak. (Here’s an interview with Nonie Darwish on FrontPage. The second article linked in the above paragraph is “The Most Muslim University in America,” by Reut R. Cohen and Jonathan Constantine Movroydis, Tuesday, June 17, 2008. about some programs held by the MSU at the University of California. This article contains a link to a post on a blog by the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism, probably worth looking at some more in the future.

Back to Phil Orenstein’s post, More on Fantasizing “The New McCarthyism”,:

At hundreds of campuses throughout the country in recent years, Muslim Student Association (MSA) chapters flourish sponsoring anti-Israel rallies, conferences, and student publications condemning Zionism, glorifying martyrs, praising Hamas and Hezbollah and raising money for their terrorist operations at campus events, and reasserting their goal for “the reestablishment of the Islamic form of government.” The deceptively moderate MSA organization was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood who described their mission in America as “a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands … so that … God’s religion [Islam] is made victorious over all other religions.”

The link is to a page about the MSA on a right wing site called “Discover the Networks: A Guide to the Political Left.” I’ve seen similar accusations against the MSA elsewhere. I have not yet researched this topic enough to know the extent to which these accusations are true. For the remainder of this post, I’ll assume for the seke of argument that they are true. In any case, whether or not the specific accusations against the MSA are true, it apparently is true that there’s a large Wahabi/Salafi missionary effort in the West, funded by the Saudi Arabian government and by Saudi billionnaries, attempting to convert people to the most retrograde form of Islam.

Phil Orenstein then says:

In such a climate, it smacks of gross hypocrisy for someone who claims to be an anti-bigotry or human rights activist to unduly favor defending Muslims.

On the contrary, it is precisely because of the very real evils of Islamism (the retrograde political ideology, as distinct from Islam as a personal religion), that there’s a danger of panic-stricken responses that violate the rights of law-abiding Muslims in the West.

Phil Orenstein then says that my concern about “defending Muslims … appears to be blind or willful obfuscation of the truth.” He then says:

But supporters of KGIA seem to dismiss these facts as more bias “attacks” on Islam and delusionally claim Muslims are the victims of “guilt by association” or “the New McCarthyism” or “Islamophobia.”

He seems to be arguing that, because of the real dangers posed by Islamists, some of whom pretend to be moderate, we therefore should throw all caution to the winds and not care about the civil rights of Muslims. Thus, he himself is an example of the witchhunt mentality whose existence he denies.

My point is not to deny the existence of real dangers of Islamism. My point is that these dangers do not justify a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude toward individual law-abiding Muslims, including public figures.

Ms. Vera calls it “the witch-hunt mentality” – bigoted attacks against Muslims, KGIA and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) based on flimsy evidence hinging on guilt by association. She dismisses the considerable evidence Daniel Pipes presents on KGIA, CAIR and Ms. Almontaser’s problematic associations and claims to know that his evidence and “his reasoning about that evidence, are glaringly flawed. I also know that a civilized society needs to uphold the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’”

He then presents a litany of accusations against CAIR, citing as sources a page about Nihad Awad on the “Follow the Networks” site and the FrontPage article A Bad Day for CAIR by Evan McCormick, 9/24/2003. I have not researched these accusations and cannot comment on whether they are all true. But, even if they are all true, it should not be assumed that every Muslim who has had anything to do with CAIR agrees with Nihad Awad’s more militant beliefs. Because CAIR happens to be one of the best-known Muslim organizations, it will inevitably attract a lot of Muslims who don’t necessarily agree with it.

Phil Orenstein then says:

Since Ms. Vera is dreadfully confused about the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” let me attempt to enlighten her about the legal system of the United States and basic civic duties of citizens, of which she seems to be sorely misinformed. The “presumption of innocence” is a basic doctrine of criminal law in which the government is required to prove the guilt of a criminal defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. For public service responsibilities, however, the process is the other way around. The people, not a government court of law must make critical judgments and informed choices in selecting the people who will serve them, and there is no presumption of innocence in this public domain. The burden of proof is on the individuals or institutions that aspire to public service, whether they’re public school principles, CUNY union officials or president of the United States.

True. However, once someone has been elected or appointed to a given public office, the person can’t just be fired willy-nilly. There has to be a good reason. And, in my opinion, good reasons involve the person’s own behavior, not just the person’s associations.

It is the civic duty of the citizens in a democracy, to judge their fitness to serve, and to continue to hold them accountable while in office.

True. Again, though, they should be held accountable for their own behavior. (Speaking of holding public officials accountable, I wonder if Phil Orenstein thinks Bush should be held accountable for lying us into the war in Iraq. But I digress.)

The “guilt” we’re talking about here, is their fitness for the job, not whether they’re good or evil people. Ms. Almontaser was the principle of a public school

Minor nit, but Phil Orenstein should learn the difference between “principle” and “principal.” He keeps using the wrong homonym.

The best way to judge public figures is by the company they keep, not just sugar-coated promises.

Why not judge them by their actions? Associations should not be an overriding factor when there is overwhelming evidence of the person’s fitness for the job and commitment to relevant values (such as, in this case, good interfaith relations), according to many different people, with different ideological commitments, who know the person.

They are working for you and me and their resumes must include good personal references, in order to be hired with our tax dollars.

In Debbie Almontaser’s case, her fitness for the job was vouched for by many different kinds of people who knew her, including folks at the ADL and quite a few rabbis. (See the list of signatories on this statement from Jewish leaders to Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.)

If they have numerous shady associations and dealings in their past, I wouldn’t hire them. I certainly wouldn’t hire someone with radical Islamic connections, or who endorses convicted terrorists.

Barack Obama’s supporters claim that he should not be accountable for the negative views and past criminality of his long time friends and associates. But since presidents appoint their friends and associates to staff and cabinet positions, his critics claim otherwise. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine an Obama cabinet with William Ayers as Secretary of Education, Reverend Louis Farakhan as Attorney General, Rev. Michael Pfleger as Secretary of the Interior, George Soros as Secretary of the Treasury, Bob Avakian as Secretary of Defense, and so forth as Prof Langbert proposes.

If Obama is elected President, Louis Farakhan will not be appointed Attorney General, and Bob Avakian will not be appointed Secretary of Defense. Don’t be ridiculous here. Obama will definitely appoint people more acceptable to America’s elite than an out-and-out Communist like Bob Avakian.

I hope this pounds the final nail in the coffin of the entire hullabaloo over “guilt by association.”

There is no such coffin. I will never stop objecting to guilt by association. Neither will any consistent opponent of religion-based bigotry. Guilt by association is, in fact, a classic logical fallacy. (See this page about it on the Nizkor site.) As long as Phil Orenstein, and others in the anti-Debbie Almontaser crowd, continue to indulge in guilt by association, others will continue to call him on it. If he’s tired of hearing other people complain about guilt-by-association, there is one and only one way for him to put an end to it, and that is for him to stop relying upon guilt-by-association.

But if she has the nerve to ask Ms. Almontaser the tough questions she posed at the end of her blog about suicide bombers and the Hamas charter and take her to task as a public figure, I would be interested in hearing her answers although predictably they will be unimpeachable polished responses.

I have not, since then, had occasion to attend another public forum at which Debbie Almontaser, nor do I see any announcements of forthcoming events on the Communities in Support of KGIA blog.

I would also be interested if she reads the books I suggested above containing real testimonies of the anguish and repercussions against those unfortunate ex-Muslims, even here in America, who denounce Islam and leave their religion, and are wanted for the crime of apostasy which is punishable by death.

I don’t need to be convinced that their situation can be traumatic, even here in the U.S.A. I can already believe it, by analogy to what I’ve heard from some former fundamentalist Christians. I’m sure it also has a lot in common with the experiences of many people growing up gay, which I’m even more familiar with. (Even here in the U.S.A., there are Christian parents who have threatened to kill their gay children.)

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