Defending Freedom Abroad and Undermining Civil Liberties at Home

Civil liberties are always precious for free people, but particularly so during times of turbulence when the future seems uncertain and society struggles to gain its balance and move in the right direction. These are, sadly, times when opportunists try to advance their fortune without regard to other people’s rights, bigots hide behind the language of patriotism, and freedom is curtailed in the name of security. It is under such conditions that civil liberties and the right to dissent become exceedingly important, as free and open debate becomes essential for pursuing the best course of action.

Yet bigots, racists, and zealots have always tried to pursue their narrow agenda during the time of war and conflict by exploiting fear and hiding behind patriotic rhetoric. The last time zealots used foreign threats to silence defenders of human rights and critics of foreign policy was during the fifties, when a junior congressman with the name of Joseph McCarthy used his position and exploited national fear and anxiety to attack his ideological opponents. McCarthy confused dissent with disloyalty, and claimed to defend freedom abroad as he was undermining it at home.

McCarthy, for instance, accused the US Army of harboring communists and described the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of being "a front for, and doing the work of, the Communist Party." He went so far as to question the loyalty of the Democratic Party, accusing it of "twenty years of treason."

His divisive and misguided approach was eloquently described by a courageous journalist with the name of Edward Murrow, who decided to confront McCarthy on March 19, 1954. "[Senator McCarthy’s] primary achievement," Murrow asserted on national TV at the height of the McCarthy era, "has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. 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."

The neo-conservative pundits, who lead a smear campaign with the aim to marginalize Muslim Americans, read from McCarthy’s manual. They have repeatedly painted Muslim Americans critical of their inhumane and exploitative foreign policy as disloyal. They most recently chided Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England for attending the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in 2006 and for inviting ISNA officers to visit the Pentagon. They have accused ISNA, and every other Muslim American organization of repute, of being sympathetic to terrorism for the sheer fact that these organizations have been critical of human rights violations by friendly foreign countries, including Israel, and have defend the civil rights of minorities under occupation, including the Palestinians.

In an article published in the Washington Times under the provocative title "Front-Gate," Frank Gaffney called Congress to investigate the "judgment," even the "loyalty," of government officials who interact with Muslim leaders and organizations. Gaffney, the president of the Center of Security Policy, a neo-conservative think tank, has taken every opportunity in the last five years to rebuke public officials who met with Muslim leaders, including Karen Hughes, former Deputy Secretary of State. His insinuation was followed by an attack on Hesham Islam by Claudia Rosett, a staff of another neo-conservative think tank with the name of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. Rosett castigated Mr. Islam, a retired Navy commander who served his adopted country with distinction and pride, basically for having the audacity to reach the position of special assistant to Secretary Gordon, having been born in Egypt and having expressed critical views of Israel’s policies.

Members of the Muslim American community, including main stream Muslim organizations and leaders, have come under concerted and intense attacks by neo-conservative organizations because they have expressed concerns about the dire conditions of Palestinians under occupation. Although these organizations have been subject to close scrutiny by government agencies, and have not been implicated in any violation of anti-terrorism statutes, neo-conservative pundits and organizations continue to use innuendo, spin, haft truths, and unfounded accusations to cast a shadow of doubt on their loyalty and their commitment to the rules of law, and to isolate them and to cut them off of political debate.

Other neo-conservative organizations, including Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, have worked tirelessly to set up nominal Muslim organizations of insignificant membership and following, in an effort to undermine mainstream Muslim organization. Some of these organizations surfaced last month to write a letter of protest to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), published in the Jewish Weekly. The letter asked Rabbi Yoffie to withdraw his organization from interfaith dialogue engagement with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The organizations, led by Stephen Schatz’s Center for Islamic Pluralism, disagreed with Rabbi Yaffie’s assertion of the need for American Jews to learn first hand about Muslims.

The authors of the letter, who called themselves "moderate" Muslims, had the tenacity to question whether the president of the largest Jewish group in the country can speak for American Jews, suggesting that they are in a better position to do so: "If Rabbi Yoffie believes that Jews are ignorant about Islam, he should be recognized as speaking only for himself." Schatz, converted from Judaism to Islam few years ago, continues to promote a neo-conservative agenda, and maintains close relationship with a network of Muslim bashers, that includes Daniel Pipes.

In response, Rabbi Mark Pelavin of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), rejected the claims by the self-proclaimed "moderate" Muslims that ISNA supports terrorism and promote violence, citing past statements and positions taken by the leading grassroots Muslim organization in the United States. The URJ’s response reminded the letter’s authors and their sponsors that no one who is serious about engaging Muslim Americans can ignore their largest organization: "If we are serious about engagement with the Muslim community, and we are, than it makes sense to go where the American Muslims are."

The far right in general, and the neo-conservative network in particular, will press on their quest to silence the Muslim community and to prevent Muslims to engage in an urgently needed national debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But these efforts can succeed only at the expense of America’s democracy, and America’s ability to engage in national discussion, essential for developing the right policies for America’s welfare and for world peace. If these undemocratic efforts are allowed to continue, they will not only lead to further isolate the United States and undermine its credibility as a society of equal rights and due process, but they will eventually undermine freedom at home.

McCarthy, who exploited the Cold War’s uncertainties to persecute his ideological opponents, was defeated because courageous Americans like Edward Murrow, George H. Bender, Joseph Nye Welch, and others spoke in opposition of his witch hunt campaign against patriot Americans. Muslim bashers, who exploit the War on Terrorism to persecute Muslim Americans, will be stopped when more American leaders, like Eric Yoffie, reject their ploys to marginalize and silence Muslims, and speak out loudly against their divisive and deceptive voices that would only undermine our freedom and democracy.

It is imperative that American leaders speak out against bigoted voices that attack Islam and Muslims. We should all recall with pride the words of Edward Murrow, which are as true today as they were fifty years ago. We need only replace the phrase "Senator McCarthy" with "neo-conservative pundits." "This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent–or for those who approve…We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom–what’s left of it–but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."