By Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
Religious freedom and the right of free expression are the strongest source of power Americans have for combating radicals who use Islam as the excuse for their violent extremism. The struggle with such extremists will not, indeed cannot, be won with military force, but through the power of our values. If there is a “narrative” abroad in the world that justifies violence against the West because the West “hates Islam,” the way to correct that narrative is with the practice of our cherished ideals of religious freedom and tolerance for diversity of opinion.
Instead, however, conservatives such as Newt Gingrich want us to reject not only violent extremists, but also Islamic ideas, especially ideas on religious law, that is, Sharia law. Gingrich believes that Americans are “at risk” as a nation, not only from the violence of a “militant Islam,” but also from the cultural integration of Muslims in the West. The latter he calls “stealth jihadists.” A close historical parallel, Gingrich argued in a lengthy address to the American Enterprise Institute entitled America at Risk: Camus, National Security and Afghanistan, where he is now a senior fellow, is the struggle with aommunism.
Almost, but not quite. The total approach Gingrich is proposing has a better historical parallel in McCarthyism. McCarthyism has come to mean making charges of disloyalty or even subversion without regard for adequate evidence. In his address, Gingrich offered a lot of anger and fear, but very little actual evidence to support his claims about Islam and the West, or even his claims about the ineffectiveness of President Obama’s approach to National Security. Joseph McCarthy, as is well known, was a Senator from Wisconsin, who used his position as chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to launch investigations designed to document charges of Communists in government. His often unsubstantiated charges, and the so-called “blacklists” that were created, suppressed American traditions of political dissent, and cultural creativity for many years. McCarthy was censured by the Senate on December 2, 1954, for behavior that was “contrary to senatorial traditions.”
But it is not the career of McCarthy himself that provides the best historical example of the political power of anti-Communism. Historian Rick Perlstein, in his book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, describes the way in which the “the politics of anger,” including anti-Communist fervor, were employed by Richard Nixon. Nixon, junior Congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee, recognized how popular anti-Communism could be as a political platform
and employed it to eventually be elected president. It is, of course, more than likely that the tactics used by the HUAC were sometimes replicated by the Nixon White House and resulted in the Watergate Scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation.
Gingrich, perhaps best remembered for his ethics troubles, his resignation from his House Seat and as Speaker of the House, and his confession of an extra-marital affair, is now moving to the religious right, as well as further to the political right. Gingrich says he will “consider” a 2012 run for the Presidency, and clearly this national security address that focuses on an “Islamic threat” is an opening gambit in that effort.
Conservatives are very divided over national security, argues Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. In light of that, an all-pervasive “Islamic threat,” it seems to me, can look like a very attractive, politically unifying strategy. This is a cardinal tenet, in fact, of the politics of anger. People divided about their own constructive approaches to an issue can become united in the face of a perceived outside threat, as was the case for Nixon and Communism.
Violent extremists are a threat. That’s not a fantasy. But why single out the idea of Sharia? I personally also disagree with adopting Sharia law in democracies such as we have in the U.S. and have said so, repeatedly.
But to make what is a debate over ideas into a dangerous threat posed by Islam to the West, instead of focusing on violent extremism, is to make Islam itself a vague and yet all-pervasive threat in very much the same way that McCarthy made even general leftist ideas into a threat to national security. What is dangerous about the McCarthyism of conservatives like Gingrich is that making ideas in Islam into the threat, they risk fueling the very narrative about the United States “hating Islam” that violent extremists use to recruit young people. The only way to combat those who would use hatred of Islam as a reason to attack the United States is to actually practice our American values of religious freedom and political inclusion.
Newt Gingrich peppered his national security address about the threat of Islam with references to famous figures who fought Nazism as well as communism, though not Nixon. He quotes Harry Truman several times, but he does not quote Truman on the dangers of targeting ideas rather than acts in regard to fighting the threat of Communism. In 1950, Truman vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act, and wrote this about his veto: “The basic error of these sections is that they move in the direction of suppressing opinion and belief. This would be a very dangerous course to take, not because we have any sympathy for communist opinions, but because any governmental stifling of the free expression of opinion is a long step toward totalitarianism. There is no more fundamental axiom of American freedom than the familiar statement: In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have.” (Italics added)
There’s another historical figure who was not featured in the Gingrich address, but whom we who venture into the media would do well to emulate: Edward R. Murrow, the famed CBS newscaster and analyst, who took on McCarthy and his tactics. On March 9, 1954, Murrow said these words that rebuked forever those who would use fear to manipulate our political processes.
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember we are not descended from fearful men–not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
Let’s remember who we are as Americans who cherish religious freedom and value political dissent. It is the strongest source of our power as a nation. We should value Islam as a part of the American fabric of religious diversity, debate its many ideas in the public square, and not be afraid to do so.