Monday, April 28, 2008

And I So Naively Thought We'd Be Able to Avoid This...

Yesterday's New York Times article about Debbie Almontaser, a New York educator who helped start a public school with an Arab focus, is making me cringe a bit. The article describes Almontaser's vision for the school thusly:

Children of Arab descent would join students of other ethnicities, learning Arabic together. By graduation, they would be fluent in the language and groomed for the country’s elite colleges. They would be ready, in Ms. Almontaser’s words, to become “ambassadors of peace and hope.”

Sounds like a terrible concept doesn't it?

Evidently there have been numerous problems at the school, most of which aren't really the concern of this blog (I'm not particularly qualified to make pronouncements on modern primary and secondary pedagogy), but the upshot is that Ms. Almontaser has been forced out of her position as principal by "a chorus of critics who claimed she had a militant Islamic agenda." Significantly, the article puts this incident into a larger context of groups in America that have begun bracing against what they call "soft jihad" waged by law-abiding citizens who seek to promote a creeping Islamicization* of American society.

The article takes particular note of Daniel Pipes, a trained historian who heads up the Middle East Forum and who helped lead the oh-so-constructively-named "Stop the Madrassa Coalition" against Ms. Almontaser's school. According to the article: the authorities have stepped up the war on terror, those critics have shifted their gaze to a new frontier, what they describe as law-abiding Muslim-Americans who are imposing their religious values in the public domain.

Mr. Pipes and others reel off a list of examples: Muslim cabdrivers in Minneapolis who have refused to take passengers carrying liquor; municipal pools and a gym at Harvard that have adopted female-only hours to accommodate Muslim women; candidates for office who are suspected of supporting political Islam; and banks that are offering financial products compliant with sharia, the Islamic code of law.

The danger, Mr. Pipes says, is that the United States stands to become another England or France, a place where Muslims are balkanized and ultimately threaten to impose sharia.
“It is hard to see how violence, how terrorism will lead to the implementation of sharia,” Mr. Pipes said. “It is much easier to see how, working through the system — the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like — you can promote radical Islam.”

A gym at Harvard adopting female-only pool hours? Quel horreur! I'd better hide my booze and get used to eating halal, because it would seem like a full-blown Islamic revolution is right around the corner!

In all seriousness, though, to act as though minor accomodations to a few Islamic cultural practices represent the first step toward imposing sharia law in the United States is simply absurd. Some European countries are having problems with their Muslim populations because of a combination of foolish immigration policies, status-quo economic management, and the perpetuation of inflexibly antiquated conceptions of their own political communities. The French have a model of "Frenchness" that is exclusivist to the point that nobody from another culture could ever hope to strike a proper balance between fidelity to their own traditions and accomodation with those of the society around them (this phenomenon, ironically enough, was one of the catalysts of the Zionist movement at the end of the nineteenth century). The United States is supposed to be different. We are supposed to have the kind of nationalism that is supple, that absorbs others' cultures and traditions even as it assimilates them into its own. I am supremely confident that we will be able to incorporate Muslims into American society without sacrificing our sovereignty to some nebulous "radical" threat posed by Islamic practices.

Confident, that is, as long as conservative yahoos who have Samuel Huntington complexes and are somehow offended by foot washing basins in public bathrooms - people like Mr. Pipes - are relegated to the margins of national discourse. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind when talking about American politics - one that goes all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Acts - is that whenever someone starts talking about vague, underground, conspiratorial movements to radically alter the face of American society, it's probably bull$@#!. The fact that a few cabbies won't give you a ride because you're carrying booze, or that a few colleges have put foot sinks in their bathrooms so that Muslim students can wash their feet before prayer without breaking their necks, or that for a few hours a week some pools are restricted to women, isn't a sign of some nefarious plot to islamicize American society. It's a sign that institutions are making some reasonable accomodations to the cultural practices of the people around them. It's the very definition of an appropriate, balanced, liberal response to cultural difference. Last time I checked, after all, Christmas was still a Federal holiday. I doubt we'll hear Mr. Pipes complaining about that any time soon.

*I have no idea if this is actually a word, but I like it and have decided to use it going forward.


BJ said...

Islamicization - *I have no idea if this is actually a word, but I like it and have decided to use it going forward.

Use it if you wish, I suppose, but I believe the more common form is Islamification,

Matt Eckel said...

Fair enough. Maybe I'll go with that.

Connie said...

In all fairness, at least you admit your naivete.