We’ve followed the speeches given by Obama administration NEH chairman Jim Leach here (commenting on Leach’s “The tension between speaking and listening”) and here (commenting on Leach’s “Bridging cultures: NEH and the Muslim world”).
Leach has embarked on what he calls “a 50 state civility tour.” We observed the kickoff of his tour with stops in New York and Philadelphia in “Civility for thee…” His tour recently took him to Colorado, where he spoke and posted a column instructing the opponents of President Obama on their incivility. We commented on the column in “Civility for thee, cont’d.”
The NEH has now posted Leach’s Denver speech here. Leach’s speech mostly regurgitates the themes of his previous speeches in the same language that we have ridiculed previously, but he now finds new ground on which to condescend to his fellow citizens in the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque.
Leach’s remarks suggest that he is living in a parallel universe, perhaps adjacent to “The Pelosi Zone.” In Jim Leach’s America, citizens are burning Korans and preventing Muslims from practicing their faith. Thus Leach advises us to “think through the implications for social cohesion at home and national security abroad when individuals object to fellow citizens practicing their chosen faith[.] Qur’an-burning and mosque-bashing are not the American way.” In Jim Leach’s land of imaginary Koran burnings and mosque-bashing, Americans must learn to respect the tenets of Islam:
Several years ago, Muslims around the world were offended when a Danish cartoonist caricatured the Prophet Mohammed. In a Western setting, caricature of many kinds is a norm. Criticism, including ridicule, of the most established institutions of society, even of a particular faith or cherished religious figure, is tolerated as a prerogative of free speech. From our perspective the Muslim reaction seemed thoroughly out of context with the Enlightenment and freedom of expression. Muslims, on the other hand, saw the West as being profoundly disrespectful.
In the Christian tradition, it is appropriate to find inspiration in visual, often sculptural, images of Christ, but the vast majority of Muslims hold that because Mohammed is sacrosanct any visual portrayal, whether praiseworthy or derogatory, is offensive. The Muslim faith eschews idolatry and finds inspiration principally in the words of the Prophet. Accordingly, if Americans burn copies of the Qur’an and don’t respect mosques, the prospect increases that religious conflict will be accentuated. How can this be in our national interest?
But Americans don’t burn copies of the Koran. And mosques have flourished in the United States. Taking a cue from his boss, Leach engages in an argument with straw men of his own making. Leach also unleashes a series of rhetorical questions:
Wouldn’t it be wiser to make clear that Islam is not the enemy and that we are only concerned about those who hijack a faith system to establish a vocabulary and action plan of hate? And wouldn’t it be thoughtful to respect places of worship and make clear that we abhor book burning, especially of anyone’s religious texts? Wouldn’t this noticeably distinguish our actions from the Taliban’s desecration of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan?
In the spirit of Jim Leach, I have a rhetorical question of my own. Wouldn’t it be better to cut the crap? Leach is not only ignorant, he is the cause of ignorance in others — if you take him seriously. Here is Leach on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the matter of the Barbary pirates:
Two centuries ago our fledgling Republic rubbed up against problems in the Muslim world when the Barbary pirates plundered the shipping lanes off North Africa. Instead of burning Qur’ans, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams studied Islam, and each had a Qur’an in his personal library. Jefferson, in fact, was a student of comparative religion and argued that what mattered most was not where the major faith systems differed but where they conjoined.
One senses that Jim Leach learned everything he “knows” about America’s struggle with the Barbary pirates from the boss. Americans actually interested in the long and involved story of America’s encounter with the Barbary pirates would do better to consult the first and third chapters of Ambassador Michael Oren’s outstanding history Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. It is a story that goes back to the first days of the republic and that illuminates our current struggles, though not as Leach instructs.
Oren reports, for example, on the March 1786 meeting of Jefferson and Adams with the pirate warlord of Tripoli in London. The Tripoli warlord “voiced a credo that would someday sound familiar to Americans, but left these founding fathers aghast.” Oren quotes the report of Jefferson and Adams to John Jay:
It was…written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their [the Musims’] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.
America’s response to the Barbary pirates unfolded over several years and four administrations, ultimately leading to the termination of the practice of tribute. The response included the framing and adoption of the Constitution, the founding of the United States Navy and a naval war on the pirates. It was not exactly a venture in multicultural understanding.
Oren writes that George Washington’s request for the funds necessary to build a navy prevailed over substantial opposition in Congress because Congress “could no longer bear the disgrace of kowtowing to Barbary.” In the administration of James Madison, Commodore Stephen Decatur conducted an extraordinary exercise in gunboat diplomacy that brought the Barbary Wars to a successful conclusion.
Jim Leach’s 50 state civility tour continues. It prompts one more rhetorical question. Wouldn’t it be best for all concerned if he stayed home and kept quiet?