On Being Borked

Etiquette called on me, as a nominee of the president of the United States, not to talk about my nomination to the board of the United States Institute of Peace while it was in process. Although the nomination was contested, I found myself having to remain mute as opponents said what they would about me.

During five months of enforced quiet, I endured Senator Edward Kennedy borking me as someone not “committed to bridging differences and bringing peace,” a Washington Post editorial criticizing me as “a destroyer” of cultural bridges, and other slings. Fortunately, others responded on my behalf; for example, Senator Chuck Schumer and the Los Angeles Times both endorsed my nomination.

My months of silence finally came to an end last Friday, when President Bush invoked his constitutional authority (Article II, Section 2) to recess appoint me and eight other persons; we will serve through the end of the current session of Congress, or January 2005.

But, as someone who has spent two-thirds of his life studying the Middle East, these public accusations remain painful to me. I have learned the Arabic language, traveled the Muslim world, lived three years in Cairo, taught courses on the region at Harvard, and specialized on it at the State and Defense departments. My career has been exactly devoted to “bridging differences and bringing peace.”

So, how did it come to be that some people discern me as hostile to Islam? I see this resulting from two main developments.

Distortion: My political opponents — Islamists, Palestinian irredentists, the far left — cherry-pick through my record to find snippets, then triumphantly brandish these to embarrass me.

Consider the following sentence, from a 1990 article of mine. Although I pooh-poohed the idea of a Muslim threat, I acknowledged there could be problems in Western Europe (as opposed to the United States) relating to Muslim immigration because Europeans “are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene.”

On its own, this would seemingly confirm my hostility to Muslims. But my opponents:

  • Ignore my having explained that “brown-skinned peoples” and “strange foods” were quotes of then-current European views, not my own sentiments. (In retrospect I should have placed those words in quotation marks.)
  • Never quote two subsequent sentences: “The movement of Muslims to Western Europe creates a great number of painful but finite challenges; there is no reason, however, to see this event leading to a cataclysmic battle between two civilizations. If handled properly, the immigrants can even bring much of value, including new energy, to their host societies.”
  • It is on the basis of such distortions that my critics built their case.

    Confusion: I strenuously draw a distinction between the religion of Islam and the ideology of militant Islam; “militant Islam is the problem and moderate Islam is the solution” has virtually become my mantra. But these are novel and complex ideas. As a result, my enmity toward militant Islam sometimes gets misunderstood as hostility toward Islam itself.

    For example, on Saturday the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front-page story about my appointment in which I am quoted saying that “Conflict without violence is the goal. We have differences with all our allies, but there is no possibility of resorting to force with them, and that is the goal which we all hope for. But that is not where we find ourselves now, as we found in Iraq and Afghanistan. We cannot always rely on nonviolent methods.”

    Not understanding my argument, the headline writer paraphrased this analysis as “Pipes says Muslim war might be needed.” In fact, it should have been “Pipes says war on militant Islam might be needed.”

    I believe the Islam vs. militant Islam distinction stands at the heart of the war on terror and urgently needs to be clarified for non-specialists. The most effective way of achieving this, I expect, is by giving voice to the Muslim victims of Islamist totalitarianism.

    Come to think of it, that sounds like the sort of activity that the USIP might wish to consider undertaking as part of its mission to “promote the prevention, management, and peaceful resolution of international conflicts.”

    Proposing projects like this is one reason why I look forward to serving on the USIP board.