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Extremism and Its Apologists

By Noah Oppenheim

This past Wednesday, Steven Emerson, an award-winning investigative reporter, and in the words of the New York Post, "the nation's foremost journalistic expert on terrorism," was invited to deliver the Alisa Flatow Memorial Lecture at the Harvard Law School. Emerson screened his powerful PBS documentary "Jihad in America," delivered some prepared remarks and fielded questions for over an hour.

"Jihad in America" is a meticulously substantiated account of Islamic fundamentalist activity in the United States. And, anyone who came to Emerson's presentation with an open mind was confronted with a level-headed, informative and compelling exposition of the very real threat that Islamic militants pose to America and the world. Unfortunately, Emerson was met with a reactionary smear campaign organized by official representatives of this campus's Muslim community.

Outside the lecture hall where Emerson spoke, leaders of the Harvard Islamic Society and Muslim Law Students Association gathered to distribute flyers vilifying Emerson's character, accusing him of racism and seeking to tie him to the presumably nefarious forces of "Israeli intelligence." One woman distributing material informed me matter-of-factly, "Emerson's film has already been discredited." In fact, the film has been enthusiastically acclaimed in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and was awarded the prestigious George Polk Award for journalistic excellence.

A similar discrepancy with reality characterized much of the propaganda disseminated. Collections of inaccurate quotes attributed to Emerson and critical excerpts from publications such as the "Weekly Planet," were offered to attendees of the lecture. It is particularly telling that while it was students who distributed the defamatory leaflets, much of the material itself was compiled and provided by an off-campus group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

While CAIR likes to present itself as a public affairs organization, in reality it is a purveyor of hate. In May 1998, it co-sponsored a rally at Brooklyn College where radical Egyptian cleric Wagdy Ghuniem referred derisively to Jews as "descendants of the apes." Its founder, Nihad Awad, has publicly expressed his support for the terrorist group Hamas.

This past week, in an exchange on a public list-serve, Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's director of communications, instructed local students on how best to respond to Emerson's appearance. At one point during the correspondence, Hooper suggested that picket signs might not be an effective tactic. A student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston protested "I really liked the one which said: 'Steven Emerson: Another Zionist Puppet.'"

Regardless of whether the angry students at Wednesday's lecture wish to believe that Emerson is in fact a "zionist puppet," his documentary stands on its own. First, it is essential to point out that the film begins and ends with explicit statements acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not associated with militant groups. In the body of his work, Emerson presents direct recordings--the authenticity of which have never been disputed--of Islamic fundamentalists meeting on American soil, often under the guise of benign humanitarian or cultural banners, celebrating the use of violence against Westerners.

The documentary's ultimate message is simple and forthright: Islam as a religion does not condone violence. Everyone's rights must surely be protected. But, there is a legitimate danger posed by militant groups who claim to act in the name of a distorted version of Islam. Our challenge, as Emerson states it in the film, is to find a way of "combating these groups within the boundaries of the Constitution."

What, then, if you cut through all the uproar, is the precise objection to Emerson and his project? One woman explained to me that she was offended by his use of the term "Islamic terrorist" because it stigmatized an entire people. Never mind that the term is concretely accurate--there are terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam. Another argued that the use of Arabic chanting in the documentary demonized the Arabic language. The chants in question were in fact calls to violence, naturally spoken in the language that these militants speak. Another man argued that Emerson propagates generalizations damaging to the Muslim community. I can only assume that this critic wasn't listening when during the film, the lecture and his interrogation by hostile audience members, Emerson differentiated between the radical fringe and mainstream Islam at least half a dozen times.

Another more chilling explanation for the opposition to Emerson presented itself in the remarks of two other attendees. They attacked him for "not properly contextualizing" the fundamentalist activity he was chronicling--as if an exploration of the Middle Eastern political quagmire might somehow justify the slaughter of innocent civilians. Emerson responded by pointing out what should have been obvious: Terrorism of any brand, born of any motivation, is abhorrent. Within the constraints of a one-hour broadcast there was no reason to seek excuses for murderers.

It is easy to see how peaceful Muslims might fear the dissemination of unflattering stereotypes. And, they have every right to guard against the development of a paranoia that might lead to an infringement on their civil liberties. However, Emerson is no bigot, nor is he a firebrand seeking to incite a panic. He is a talented journalist working to shed light on a threat all too well understood by women living under the Talisban regime in Afghanistan, by Israeli shopkeepers, schoolchildren and commuters, and--increasingly in the aftermath of the World Trade Center and African embassy bombings--by average American citizens.

The problem of extremism is one that should concern everyone on this campus regardless of faith, ethnicity or political agenda. It is a shame that those students who devoted themselves to executing the hatchet job on Steven Emerson could not find a more productive outlet for their energies.

Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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