Last night I spoke at the New York Tolerance Center in Manhattan — ironically enough, under protection from the NYPD after a death threat. Some New Yorkers, apparently, were not interested in tolerating my calling attention to the activities and goals of the global jihad network.
Irony was heaped on irony when I was confronted after the talk by a couple of self-righteous young people who informed me that America is the real global terrorist threat, and that I should be just as concerned about Jerry Falwell as about somebody like Ayatollah Sistani, whose equation of unbelievers as unclean in the same sense as dogs, pigs, and excrement I had made reference to during the question and answer period. I will be writing more about my exchange with this pair, since it was indicative of some prevailing attitudes that are important to address. But I mention them in this connection because when I saw this New York Observer article, “Local Insurgents: “˜Islamic Thinkers” Menace Gay N.Y.,” (thanks to JP for the link), I thought of them again: they’re anxious to make an equation between Christian and Muslim extremists, while glossing over the fact that Falwell and others whom they like to mention do not call for the deaths of homosexuals, while these people do. This demonstrates the bankruptcy and, ultimately, the danger of such moral equivalence arguments, which are nonetheless ubiquitous today in discussions of Islamic terrorism. But their ultimate effect is to divert attention away from those who are actually committing violence and threatening to do so, and shifting it to others who do not commit or preach violence, as well as to people like me who are merely calling attention to the violence, hatred, and intolerance that is daily manifested by adherents of the jihad ideology.
On the evening of July 11, 2004, Kristine Withers walked down 37th Avenue, a main drag in Jackson Heights, Queens, and passed what had become a familiar sight: a group of tables set up on the sidewalk by the Islamic Thinkers Society, a local group of militant Islamists. On the tables, copies of the Koran and books espousing the group’s strict religious beliefs shared space with tracts on Zionism, pamphlets on the dangers of homosexuality, and signs bearing messages like “Your Terrorists Are Our Heroes.”
Ms. Withers, who identifies herself as a lesbian and a political conservative, was offended by the group’s message. The Islamic Thinkers Society had become a regular feature at local gay-pride parades, where they”ve called for the castration and death of gay men, according to several witnesses who spoke to The Observer. But Ms. Withers said it was as much the anti-American messages as the anti-gay ones that riled her up.
“To me, it’s synonymous with the Nazis recruiting on 42nd Street during World War II,” she said of her antagonists.
So, in another installment of the then-yearlong series of hostile exchanges between her and the group, she decided to do something. At one point in the exchange, she told the dozen or so bearded young men who make up the group that the prophet Muhammad was a pedophile. They called her a “Christian bitch,” by her account. Then she knocked over a sign and stepped on it. Two young bearded men, members of the group, pulled the sign out from under her, sending her flying to the ground.
Soon, police arrived and took a statement from Mohamed Bahi, a student at Queens College who told The Observer that he is not a member of the group. Ms. Withers was charged with incitement to riot and four other counts. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown assigned the case to the unit of his office that handles bias crimes, though Ms. Withers argued that the Queens District Attorney was going after the wrong person for bias.
The Islamic Thinkers Society wouldn’t answer questions about the confrontation, but members of the group relived their confrontations with Ms. Withers on their password-protected Web site, hundreds of pages of which were provided to The Observer by the SITE Institute in Washington, which monitors online extremist groups. In their discussions, group members referred to Ms. Withers as “it” and a “dirty she-male.”
“When “˜it” came back with fists up and ready for action, it got what it asked for,” wrote the site’s administrator, who goes by the name “Islamic Revival” and was apparently among the people on the scene. He described “a couple of slaps and snuffs in the face and a few other hits by a brother NOT from us but a brother who sells Islamic Books near us.”
“They said what they said,” explained Patrick Clark, a spokesman for Mr. Brown, of the Islamic Thinkers” anti-gay statements. “But there’s also evidence to indicate that there was a crime that occurred, and that the defendant stomped on merchandise and religious artifacts and interrupted the prayer service and shouted epithets.”
The case has since been resolved: Ms. Withers pled guilty this year and enrolled in anger-management classes, she told The Observer, to avoid the expense of a lawyer.
The dispute between an irascible lesbian conservative from Queens and a militant new group well on the fringes of the city”s Muslim community might appear to be a marginal conflict. But to New York’s gays and to some of its Muslim leaders, the scene in Jackson Heights bears a worrying similarity to communal conflicts that are challenging the idea of tolerance across Europe, with particular flashpoints in Holland and Scandinavia. There, young immigrants and the children of immigrants have been drawn to a more radical Islamic ideology than that of their parents. On the extreme fringes, these young men have committed acts of violence against Jews and gays, and in a case that shocked Europe, one young Dutchman of Moroccan origin murdered the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in an Amsterdam street.
“It’s almost a clichÃ© to define it like this, but in the end it’s a question of whether you can tolerate intolerance,” said Leon de Winter, a Dutch novelist who has written on the Van Gogh murder. “We are defending the openness, the diversity of this society against tendencies from other cultures, in which this kind of openness which we celebrate is being regarded as a threat.”
In this conflict, gays have become canaries in the ideological coal mine. Western liberals have tended to cut Muslim groups slack on their ideological pronouncements, in part out of sympathy with some of their causes””the insurgencies in Chechnya and the Middle East, for example””and in part out of a sense that anti-Muslim sentiment in the West is a more pressing problem than anything Muslims themselves might do.
But the rise of gay bashing on European streets has pushed the question of tolerance a step further and led some to question their reflexive defense of a put-upon minority. It has also opened up a heated debate within the gay community, and among liberals in general, over whether the proliferation of intolerant strains of Islam requires liberals in the West to take a harder line on issues like immigration and assimilation.
For some conservative intellectuals, rising anti-gay violence on the streets of Amsterdam, for example, comes as a kind of vindication.
“For liberals, the violent anti-gay hostility of their fundamentalist Muslim allies may be the first thing that really makes them realize they”re not on the same page,” said the conservative gay writer Bruce Bawer, who lives in Oslo, and who is writing a book entitled While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within.
Others argue that the rise of conservative Islam in Europe is, in part, a reaction to Europe’s inability to integrate its immigrant populations. By this argument, America is different, given its openness to newcomers and its different set of Muslim immigrants.
“American Muslims are far better educated and far richer than average,” said Muqtedar Khan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who dismissed the Islamic Thinkers and their ilk as “small pockets of angry youth.”
But here in New York, perhaps the most European of American cities in its traditional tolerance, some disturbing signs have emerged on the line between gay and Muslim communities. The Islamic Thinkers” Web site is full of suggestions of anti-gay violence: “Man I can’t stop thinking: shoot the qawm of Lut,” wrote one of the site’s moderators on May 20, using a Koranic reference to the story of Lot and Sodom….
The Islamic Thinkers, meanwhile, are not too new to American politics to play another familiar card: victimhood.
The group declined to respond to requests from a reporter to discuss their beliefs and their conflict with Ms. Withers. Instead, the group posted to its Web site (www.islamicthinkers.com) an e-mail from The Observer and warned that “an article would be published to deliberately misrepresent Islamic Thinkers Society and its views.”
Later, the group posted a similar response to a forthcoming New York Times article: “Again and again, the Muslims of Islamic Thinkers Society have denied any interviews to the media,” the Web site read. “Due to the unavailability of any direct source of information, even the reputable media outlets have turned into tabloids. The goal of the media is to suppress Muslims who stand up for injustice is vindicated even more now.”
Even members of the Muslim community who have had limited interactions with the Islamic Thinkers are unsure of their origins or their size. The regular group, which spends weekend afternoons on that Jackson Heights street corner, is composed of about a dozen young Muslims, most of them men, some in traditional dress. Some of the group’s members are apparently American-born, and some are converts to Islam.
The Islamic Thinkers gained national notoriety earlier this year when they posted a video on the Internet””titled “Operation Desecrate American Flag–”that depicted them stomping an American flag into the curb and shouting that the “flag represents the Crusader war on Islam headed by the United State government.”
The group has also become a fixture at Queens gay events, holding signs with messages like “Allah Will Destroy Nations That Allow Homosexuality” and “Today: Homosexuality; Tomorrow: Pedophilia; What’s Next? Bestiality?” at the borough’s Pride Parade, which runs through Jackson Heights. Last year, screaming matches erupted between the two sides; this year, police kept them apart.
“Somebody in the crowd started shouting “˜Go back to Osama bin Laden!” or whatever, and these guys started shouting back,” recalled Ayaz Ahmed, a gay Pakistani Muslim who attended this year’s parade. “I was like, “˜Oh, my God””what’s happening here?–
But even some American Muslim groups who maintain that Islam forbids homosexuality have little time for the Islamic Thinkers. The executive director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Wissam Nasr, said the group’s style and the destruction of an American flag have caused “dismay” in the city”s Muslim community. The draft of a letter to the Islamic Thinkers, he added, is circulating among religious and communal leaders, and it tells the group: “You really have to know the disapproval that you”re meeting in the Muslim community.–¦
Other community groups were less willing to distance themselves from the Islamic Thinkers.
Adem Carroll of the Queens-based Islamic Circle of North America, for instance, said that the group was “not my cup of tea,” but described it as “a sign of the alienation and anger that’s in the community, adding: “I think the approach of the Bush administration does not help.
“If you”re quoting me, I would hope that whatever I say doesn’t sound like I”m condemning them,” Mr. Carroll concluded.
Logged and noted, Mr. Carroll.