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.