In recent years, conservative researcher and commentator Daniel Pipes has become a spokesman for fear of Islam. One of his most damaging efforts is chronicled in Andrea Elliott's recent New York Times article, "Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream School." The piece describes the campaign that prevented Arab-American educator Debbie Almontaser from realizing her vision of creating a New York City charter school in which students would learn Arabic together.
Almontaser is a moderate, pro-peace Muslim, a proponent of interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians. Much as I'd like to meet her, I never have. Strangely, though, I once spent a day with Pipes. A dovish friend of mine with an interest in the Middle East was then active in the Middle East Forum (MEF), Pipes's organization. I'd recently published my book, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, on the role of religious extremism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My friend arranged for me to give two talks for the MEF - a lunch in New York, a dinner in Philadelphia. We took the train together between the two cities. Pipes was polite, energetic, intense. His eyes moved quickly when he talked. Did I say he was intense? He reminded me, strangely, of Bassam Jirrar, a Hamas-linked sheikh whom I'd interviewed for the book, and who'd been amazingly hospitable while explaining numerological hints in the Quran that Israel will be destroyed in 2022.
Sometime during the day, as I remember, Pipes gave me an article of his to read, in which he argued that Islamicism is essentially a politically ideology, despite its religious roots. Islamicist activists, he said, compare Islam to communism and democracy, rather than to other religions. When they say, "Islam is the solution," they mean the political solution. In itself, that's a worthwhile point. It's somewhat reductionist - it presumes that a set of beliefs is either religion or politics - but it did fit the thinking of at least some of the Islamicist activists I'd interviewed. (Actually, it also fit the thinking of some of the far-right Israeli settler activists with whom I'd conducted long interviews, though the religious sages they wanted to put in control were Jewish ones rather than Muslim ones.)
That was in 2001. This week I read Elliott's article on the Almontaser's vision, and Pipes's role in foiling it. Before the school opened its doors, she was forced to resign as principal. In the yellow press and in the campaign of her opponents, she was portrayed as an extremist, exactly what she is not.
Pipes said that any school teaching Arabic would turn into a madrassa, a school of Islam, which for him meant it would teach radical Islam and threaten American values. His objections led to a campaign called "Stop the Madrassa." It was of a piece with Pipes's other efforts to prevent such threats to Western civilization as allowing women-only hours at public swimming pools so that religious Muslim women can use them. He thinks those invidious Islamicists are now trying to impose sharia by lawful political activism rather than terror. As Elliott wrote in the Times:
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...
"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."
Pipes's thinking works like this: Having identified Islamicism as a political ideology, he has taken the next step and identified every manifestation of Islam, or of Arab cultural identity, as expressions of that political ideology, which is seeking to subvert America as assiduously as the communism that his Cold Warrior father, Richard Pipes, warned against. A bank that offers investment instruments suitable for Muslims is subversive. A swimming pool that lets women swim without showing themselves to men is serving Tehran. A school that makes halal food available to students - as rumors said that Almontaser's school would do - is part of the conspiracy. Headscarves are dangerous. Beards are OK, though. Pipes has a beard. Or maybe he's also part of the conspiracy.