Reading your last post , Haim, I suspected that you’ve been hacking into my thoughts. Not about swimsuits per se , but about Daniel Pipes’s curious belief that swimming in mixed company is a democratic duty.
Strangely, I spent a day once 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 , and 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 Jewish activists with whom I’d conducted long interviews, though the sages they wanted to put in control were Jewish ones rather than Muslim ones.)
This was in 2001. My friend later gave up on MEF, given the gap in his views and Pipes’s. In 2003, I spent four days as a scholar-in-residence for a Jewish group in Pennsylvania. I taught about fundamentalism. My hosts told me that a previous guest was Pipes, and that he proposed that Islamic fundamentalism would have to be defeated as Nazism was, by force. I found this curious, to say the least. Which country would be invaded, and why would Islamic fundamentalism vanish after the capital was taken?
Yesterday – before reading Haim on swimsuits – I read Andrea Elliott’s 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. Yellow journalism and a campaign by anti-Islamic activists – Pipes prominently among them – painted the moderate, pro-peace Almontaser as an Islamic extremist. Before the school opened its doors, she was forced to resign as principal.
Pipes said that any school teaching Arabic would turn into a madrassa , a school of Islam, which for him meant it would teach radical Islam and threaten American values. His objections led to a campaign called “Stop the Madrassa.” The campaign is of a piece with his objections to separate hours at swimming pools. He thinks those invidious Islamicists are now trying to impose sharia by lawful political activism rather than terror.
Mr. Pipes and others reel off a list of examples: Muslim cabdrivers in Minneapolis who have refused to take passengers carrying liquor; municipal pools and a gym at Harvard that have adopted female-only hours to accommodate Muslim women; candidates for office who are suspected of supporting political Islam; and banks that are offering financial products compliant with sharia…
“It is hard to see how violence, how terrorism will lead to the implementation of sharia,” Mr. Pipes said. “It is much easier to see how, working through the system – the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like – you can promote radical Islam.”
Pipes’s thinking works like this: Having identified Islamicism as a political ideology, he has taken the next step and identified every manifestation of Islam, or of Arab cultural identity, as expressions of that political ideology, which is seeking to subvert America as assiduously as the communism that his Cold Warrior father, Richard Pipes, warned against. A bank that offers investment instruments suitable for Muslims is subversive. A swimming pool that lets women swim without showing themselves to men is serving Teheran. A school that makes halal food available to students – as rumors said that Almontaser’s school would do – is part of the conspiracy. Headscarves are dangerous. Beards are OK, though. Pipes has a beard. Or maybe he’s also part of the conspiracy.
Besides the absolute rigidity of thinking this reflects, the utter failure to understand varieties of thought within a religion, the bigotry, and the incomprehension of the dynamics of religious responses to modern culture, Pipes is also rather dangerous to Jews.
Banks can’t cater to Muslims? Is the republic threatened by food producers getting kashrut supervision to cater to Jews? Maybe those Jews seek to impose halakhic rule on America. If a public school offers Hebrew as a foreign language, maybe it is promoting (heaven forfend) Judaism. It’s becoming a beit midrash . Out in the West Bank, there are some batei midrash (the study halls in yeshivot) where the teachers have extreme, even violent political ideas. By Pipes’s reasoning, every beit midrash is therefore suspect, and every Hebrew class is dangerous to democracy. Not to mention those (Orthodox) women who don’t want to wear their swimsuits in front of men. They might as well be suicide bombers. In fact, by Pipes’s reasoning, they’re more dangerous.
If you’re reading this in New York or Seattle or Philadelphia, I suggest to you that the crowning glory of American democracy is tolerance and freedom of religion, and that the real danger to democracy comes from the likes of Daniel Pipes.