There’s a letter to the editor in last Wednesday’s Times-Picayune (page B-6, in case anyone cares) by a guy named Steve Palme. He writes to criticize Cal Thomas’ column. It seems that "a manager" at al-Arabiyah (he is, in fact, the general manager Abdulrahman al-Rashed, Thomas’ transliteration, not mine) made some harsh statements about Islam’s failure to produce anything of value in this century, and Cal Thomas was happy because it means some Muslims are prepared to face up to some harsh reality. With that introduction, here is the text of Palme’s letter [and I take full credit and apologize for any mistakes in my transcription]:
Benighted columnist deserves to be shunned
Cal Thomas wrote about how a manager at Al Arabiyah finally pointed out that terrorism in an end result of the Middle East’s "corrupted culture."
While he seemed to be talking about the corrupt rulers in the region, Mr. Thomas explained to us what the Muslim in question was really saying: that Islam, which he says in the inventor of the suicide attack, is all about promoting extremism, violence and intolerance. That there are no "moderate Muslims." And, of course, thank God we have the Patriot Act so that we can keep an eye on all them shifty, dangerous Muslims in our midst. Otherwise, we’d have to do something drastic like put them in internment camps or make them wear armbands so that we could identify them on the street.
Mr. Thomas conveniently forgets about Christian extremists, like Eric Rudolph, who have set off bombs in the United States. He leaves out the fact that of the millions of Muslims who are American citizens, not one has ever been convicted for any terrorist act. He fails to mention that the Japanese kamikazes (along with many others throughout history) used suicide attacks - it wasn’t an invention of Islam.
The Muslim community is made up of tax-paying, hard working people who, like most of the rest of us, are just trying to build a life for themselves. But it would ruin Mr. Thomas’ despicable stereotype if he had to talk about all those troublesome facts.
I think it is high time that we call Mr. Thomas what he has shown himself to be: a venomous bigot who deserves nothing less than to be shunned by decent people.
I bring this letter to your attention because I plan on fisking it, but it also turns our I know Mr. Palme - or rather, I know who he is. He goes to my school, and he wrote a column in the school’s newspaper in response to something I wrote. His column chided me (and to a degree, rightfully so) for, in effect, using language that perpetuates the bitterness that divides American politics. But his column also took the extra step of using incredibly acerbic language. I pointed that out in my follow-up column, and based on the above it seems he didn’t take my counter-chiding to heart. At least, not while typing the phrases "despicable stereotype" or "venomous bigot." If the phrase "actions speak louder than words" has any meaning, it seems that Palme only supports harsh rhetoric when it is coming from himself (or, I assume, like-minded people). So with all of that in mind, and also considering that I will e-mail Mr. Palme to invite him to weigh in on this discussion, I proceed with the fisking. I hope he will choose to jump in on the conversation, and we can talk about things like civilized adults.
For starters, here’s a link to Mr. Thomas’ column that has Mr. Palme so up-in-arms. Read it for yourselves, then come back here.
Okay. It’s always good to go to your sources. And speaking of sources, I should add that I found the full text of Rashed’s column in the original Arabic on www.asharqalawsat.com. They don’t have permalinks, but if you happen to read Arabic, it’s from September 7, 2004. I haven’t had time to translate it or the readers’ comments yet. And I was unable to find an English translation anywhere. Maybe one of my readers can help us out.
I. Mr. Palme Misrepresents Mr. Thomas
As anyone can see from Thomas’ quote, al-Rashed states plainly that "our terrorist sons are an end-product of our corrupted culture." Thus, regardless of what Palme wants us to think the Bahraini author was saying, he really was indicting the culture, not just corrupt leaders. So I hope my readers will take Palme’s mischaracterization of Thomas’ arguments with a grain of salt, because if we are to criticize the man, we should do it on the basis of what he actually says, instead of what Palme says he says.
Another example: according to Palme, Thomas says Islam is the inventor of the suicide attack. Thomas says no such thing. The only time the word "suicide" appears in the column is when Thomas quotes al-Rashed. And al-Rashed says no such thing, either. He says, "Most perpetrators of suicide operations in buses, schools and residential buildings around the world for the past 10 years have been Muslims." It is somewhat ironic that Palme’s conclusion that these words indicate a "despicable stereotype," yet they proceed from the Arab guy, not the white guy.
Not that facts should get in the way of a good diatribe, I guess.
Another example: Thomas never uses the phrase "moderate Muslims," let alone state that there’s no such thing. Instead, Thomas wonders why moderate Muslims don’t actually come out and condemn the suicide attacks that I hope Mr. Palme doesn’t deny are happening.
Not that Thomas’ actual words should be taken into account, I guess.
So again, I urge you all to read Thomas’ actual words, rather than relying on Palme’s representations. Of course, that’s good advice in all cases, not just this one, but I’ve given a few examples to illustrate why that is.
II. Mr. Palme’s Use of Hyperbole and Sarcasm
Interestingly, Palme sarcastically refers to putting Muslims in internment camps (an idea never mentioned by Thomas, btw). He apparently misses the point that using the Patriot Act to monitor specific targets and prosecute criminals is a much better option than internment camps. I think that criminal prosecutions are a nice middle ground between mass internment and simply ignoring the fact that most terrorists today are in fact Muslims. Those that want to attack America, at any rate.
Also interestingly, Palme sarcastically refers to making Muslims wear armbands so we can identify them - apparently a reference to Nazis forcing Jews to sew Stars of David onto their clothes to identify them. I wonder (and I really don’t know) if Palme heard about the Taliban’s decision, not too long before 9/11 if memory serves, to force Hindus living in Afghanistan to wear such identification. I was horrified at the time, and the close link with Nazism makes me even more glad that the Taliban has been decimated. I honestly don’t know Mr. Palme’s feelings on the invasion of Afghanistan, and whether or not it’s a good thing that the people who were doing that to Hindus are no longer in power. But I do know that the practice was an excellent example of al-Rashed’s indictment of corrupt culture. And I, for one, will support the President who removed that regime.
III. Mr. Palme Misses the Point
Due in part to his misrepresentation of Mr. Thomas’ point about the source of suicide bombing, Mr. Palme assumes that examples of non-Muslim extremists and suicide bombers will refute Thomas’ point. Well, knocking down a strawman doesn’t really prove much of anything. And perhaps more importantly, Palme uses Thomas’ omission of facts as proof that Thomas is "a venomous bigot." The problem is that the omission of irrelevant facts is considered good writing, not evidence of bigotry. It may be true that Eric Rudolph and others have set off bombs in the United States. But Thomas was arguing that Muslims should stand up and condemn bombers, and since moderate Christians condemn the actions of bombers, Palme’s example is simply meaningless. It may be true that the Japanese kamikaze pilots used suicide attacks, but since Thomas never said the Muslims invented them, his example is simply meaningless.
Furthermore, it's interesting to see that Palme's example show us exactly where his thinking is. He is in the past, not the present. There was a time when yes, Japanese fighter pilots crashed planes into military targets. That was a problem for another time. Both Thomas and al-Rashed are thinking about today's problems.
IV. Stereotyping: Okay for Me, Bad for You
Palme says that "the Muslim community is made up of tax-paying..."
What, all of them? Or is this a stereotype?
"...hard working people..."
What, all of them? Or is this a stereotype?
"...like the rest of us..."
What, all of us? I don’t pay taxes. I would need income to do that. So much for your despicable stereotype.
"But it would ruin Mr. Thomas’ despicable stereotype if he had to talk about all those troublesome facts."
Thomas’ only assertions, and they go utterly unaddressed in Palme’s letter, are that a) Muslims are responsible for most of the suicide operations in the past ten years (he’s approving a quote by al-Rashed) and that b) many Americans avoid noticing that terrorists are Muslims because of politics. If there’s any doubt as to the latter point, look at the reporting on the Beslan massacre and see how often the reporters mention that the terrorists were Muslims. Key quote from Thomas: "It’s long past time to ditch political correctness and identify the enemy, which is not disembodied ‘terrorism’ but radical Islamicists who commit terror in the perverted name of their god." If Palme has a problem with anything said in that sentence, I’d love to know what it is. Because by identifying the problem as "radical Islamicists," Thomas implied accepts that not all Islamicists are radicals. And if the terrorists have perverted the name of their god, he implies that there is an unperverted name out there, something more pure and holy, that does not approve the slaughter of innocents in Beslan or anywhere else. Careful reading, Mr. Palme: it’s a good thing.
Correction: The Sept. 7 article I found archived on asharqalawsat.com is not, in fact, the article that Thomas referenced. That means I have to keep looking. The archived editorials have a comment feature, so I'll see what I can do about translating reader reactions, as well. But that takes time (heck, translation even takes time with an easy language like Italian), so you will have to either be patient or simply stop reading my blog.