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Is Fighting Islamic Extremism Racist? Islamophobia?

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Something very telling happened in New York the other day: Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy, an outspoken (and often self-promoting) commentator and journalist, publicly defaced one of the controversial posters now appearing in and around the city’s transit system, calling its message “hate speech.”  This, she maintains, gives her the right, under the U.S. Constitution, to exercise her free expression by destroying it. 

She’s wrong, of course – on all counts; and presumably, thanks to her subsequent arrest, she now knows, at least, that the right to free expression does not include the right to vandalize or physically harm the property of others. 

But that’s not what the real story is about.  The real story has less to do with the nature of “free speech” than with the nature and content of this particular woman’s particular response.

For those not yet familiar with it, the poster in question, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative and inspired by a statement by Ayn Rand, reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.” 

Initially, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which oversees the New York subway and bus system, attempted to ban the ads as “hate speech”; a Federal court judge ruled against them this past July.  The posters began appearing just in the past couple of weeks – quickly accompanied by newspaper op-eds and letters from readers taking on the issue, which was made all the more urgent by the fact that they emerged just as riots were breaking out in Egypt and throughout the Middle East in protest against the anti-Islam You Tube video, “Innocence of Muslims.”

But Eltahawy, who moved to America in 2000, evidently was not satisfied with speech alone.  Unlike the ad’s sponsors, this Egyptian born-and-raised activist felt the need to express her displeasure with a physical assault on the bearer of a message she didn’t happen to like: she spray painted one of the ads in pink. What’s more, she referred to her act of pure vandalism as “peaceful protest” – a deliberately misleading choice of words, it seems to me, since – though perhaps peaceful – it was hardly non-violent. 

Because with all the options available to her as a frequent speaker on national news programs and contributor to various major publications, instead of, say, arranging a demonstration, or carrying her own sign through the subways, or buying ad space of her own, she chose, instead, to pursue a physical, not a verbal attack — failing, somehow, to appreciate the difference between telling the class jerk that he’s an idiot and beating him up in the schoolyard, between disagreeing with your Jewish neighbor and painting swastikas on his front door.

And the truth is that this, despite her disavowals, constitutes violence, defined as follows (bold emphasis mine).

Violence — n

1. the exercise or an instance of physical force, usually effecting or intended to effect injuries, destruction, etc –

2. powerful, untamed, or devastating force:

3. great strength of feeling, as in language, etc; fervor

4. an unjust, unwarranted, or unlawful display of force, esp such as tends to overawe or intimidate

In other words, the deliberate and forceful destruction of property, especially when emotionally motivated, is a violent act.  (And when that property belongs to someone else, it is also a criminal act — as Ms. Eltahawy now knows).

Now one might, I imagine, be tempted to forgive Ms. Eltahawy on the basis of her upbringing in a country that does not share America’s free speech traditions (though she did spend several formative years in England).  After a mere 12 years in the US, perhaps she doesn’t quite get its nuances.  Maybe she hasn’t yet learned the difference between asking someone to step back and shoving him out of your space.  (And  if this is how Egypt’s intelligentsia reacts to the expression of views it finds unpalatable, it should be no surprise that the riots at the US embassy in Cairo against the “Innocence of Muslims” took place at all.  Can we really expect anything else?

And while we’re on the subject, I also can’t help but wonder why Eltahawy hasn’t made at least as much noise about the video, too, unless it’s because its creator also happens to be Egyptian-American.  But I digress.)

Still, I’m disturbed that anyone could earnestly believe that a physical attack fueled by anger could not constitute violence.  Worse, I can’t help but wonder what that person actually considers violence, instead, to be. Or is this the same mentality, for instance, that insists that “lightly smacking” a disobedient wife – per common readings of the surah Nisa 4:34  — does not constitute actual physical abuse?

And  here’s the other thing: if the posters constitute “hate speech” so egregious they can’t help but inspire vitriolic, righteous rage, that hate is directed very clearly not at Islam or at Muslims, but at Islamic terrorism — at an orthodox, fundamentalist reading of Islam that most self-professed “moderate” Muslims – including  Eltahawy – maintain is a “hijacking” of their religion, indeed, a vandalizing, of sorts, of their faith.

So you sort of have to wonder what it is she finds so offensive, so appalling, she is driven to destruction.  Surely, it can’t be the use of the word “savages”; she herself has referred to exactly such Muslim men and extremists as “beasts.”   Why in the world would she defend them, or turn against those who claim to share the very views she herself espouses?

Yet in public statements since her attack, Eltahawy has maintained that the word “savage” is precisely what she objects to – leading some to accuse her of hypocrisy. And rightly so: for here (somewhat ironically)  is how Dictionary.com defines “savage” (again, bold emphasis mine).

1. fierce, ferocious, or cruel; untamed: savage beasts.

2. uncivilized; barbarous: savage tribes.

3. enraged or furiously angry, as a person.

So let’s assume, for a moment, that since she herself has described jihadists as “beasts,” it is not – despite her disavowals – the word “savages” that upset her. (Though could anyone genuinely not think of terrorists as “fierce, ferocious, or cruel,” as “enraged or furiously angry”?)   That leaves the rest of the message: “Support Israel. Defeat jihad.”  The alternative would then read, “Defeat Israel. Support Jihad.”   If the first is objectionable, then one can logically only conclude that she prefers the latter.

Does she?

Here’s another disturbing tale:

On the night that Osama bin Laden was assassinated, an Iraqi friend of mine living in New York woke her (American) roommate with the news, breathlessly insisting they join the crowds already gathering in Ground Zero.    Together, the two grabbed a taxi, my Iraqi friend giddy with excitement and waving a small American flag through the window of the cab as she ululated with delight.

Not Mona Eltahawy.

According to a piece Eltahawy wrote for the Guardian and reprinted on her blog, the Egyptian-American was distressed by the jubilant cries of “USA! USA!” that sounded through the streets of lower Manhattan. 

“Inappropriate,” she declared, and instead, replaced the joyous rhythm with the surah Al—Fatiha, or “opening prayer,” which she chanted to herself over the ashes of bin Laden’s destruction and the thousands he had murdered on that spot:

“In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful?Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,? The Beneficent, the Merciful.? Owner of the Day of Judgment,?Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help.?Guide us on the straight path,? The path of those whom Thou hast favored;? Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.”

Combine this event with the attack on the posters in the subway, and what strikes me as most disturbing about Ms. Eltahawy’s position is its underlying message, the one perhaps she wants us not to see: because by suggesting that a call to fight Islamic jihad is “racist,” she is equating every Muslim with jihad. After all, if being “anti-jihadist” equals being “anti-Muslim,” then “jihadist” equals “Muslim.” That’s just simple logic.

So is this what she is telling us is true?

Is it true?

Is that why she finds the words “defeat jihad” so objectionable she cannot control her fury? Is that why, in fact, she turned to violence in place of speech to express her rage?

I doubt it, frankly. But I can’t help but begin to wonder.

I find little comfort in Ms. Eltahawy’s remarks since the episode, either, or in her threatening Twitter posts, which occasionally display more of a vitriolic rage she is little able to contain – posts like “If u think my spray painting was "fake", get ur ass 2 #NYC? & show me how you'd fight racism & hate. Till then, shut the f**k up” and “Meet me in the subway sh*thead.” [her original contained the full profanities]. 

And even as I write, in yet another Twitter message, Eltahawy has referred to the destruction by Islamists of Buddhist temples in Bangladesh as “deplorable.” Yet when I asked her why words like “deplorable” and “beasts” were acceptable while “savage” was not, she failed to respond.

That saddens me.

Because in the end, the New York subway posters point directly to the dangers of radical Islam, and to the violence it condones.  So often, we turn to the more moderate voices, the ones we hope, like Mona Eltahawy, will stand up to denounce and to defeat them. 

But she has just announced to us that she will not.  Who, then, can we count on?

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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