Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon has a piece that criticizes the New York Times for hiding the fact that an anti-Israel piece was written by a guy whose organization was funded by the government of Qatar. Why might that be a problem? The Security Studies Group recently co-hosted a conference on Qatari information operations. Qatar’s government is increasingly aligned with Iran, which is openly committed to the destruction of Israel (to the point of writing “Israel must be wiped out” on its missiles, and in Hebrew to make sure that the point was clear to its intended audience). Qatar also hosts groups that oppose Israel’s existence, and funds Hamas, which does so by charter. Kredo’s piece includes interviews with several experts who think that it might be relevant to readers of the Times to know that Qatar might have paid for this article that criticizes Israel.
Why would Qatar do that? My colleague David Reaboi has been focused on the questions raised by our recent conference. In a documentary on the subject, Blood Money, David explains that the Qatari government has invested vast sums of money in influence operations in the West. Until recently, support for Israel was very much a bipartisan matter, but of late the Democratic Party has begun to show some cracks. As an enemy of Israel, Qatar stands to gain by furthering this narrative. Readers may not be aware of the backstory, Kredo’s experts suggest, and as a result they may be being manipulated. If they were informed of Qatar’s support for the author’s organization, readers could filter for the possibility of a hidden and hostile agenda being at work.
It may also be relevant, as Kredo’s piece further suggests, that the author’s employer raises millions from supporters of the very policy that the author is discussing. That is relevant to readers’ capability to analyze the article fairly.
What reading the Kredo piece and the one it criticizes brings into focus for me, though, is another problem about accusations of prejudice. America is a nation that has transcended a difficult history, and through that transcendence we have learned to oppose prejudice. This is good, and it was expensive. We should take great care of this legacy. Part of taking care of it includes not letting people weaken it by misuse. I’m going to talk about that problem a bit, and propose a solution.
First, who is really antisemitic here? If you believe everything you read, everyone is and no one is. The NYT piece expresses itself as opposing antisemitism, but endorses a policy — the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians — that all sides recognize would mean the end of Israel. The author is friendly toward boycotts aimed at bringing that policy about. Kredo labels this “the anti-Semitic boycott movement the author describes.” Kredo isn’t alone: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared last week that “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” The author and Kredo thus both posit themselves as opposing antisemitism. Yet Kredo, describing the funding of this organization, notes not only Qatar’s very large donations but also George Soros’. The Anti-Defamation League has said that criticisms of Soros’ role in political movements are, you guessed it, antisemitic. In our current environment, the accusation ends up pointed at everyone — even the Jews.
This is becoming a common state of affairs. SSG President Jim Hanson defended the use of the phrase “Cultural Marxism” last week against claims that the phrase is inherently antisemitic. Those who say that the phrase is antisemitic think it is because it is a criticism of a school of thought, the so-called “Frankfurt school,” whose founding members were all Jews. One can presumably criticize a school of thought without disliking its founders (or, for that matter, even knowing who they are, or what their religions were). But the particular criticism that Jim was responding to was a criticism not of the Frankfurt school but of Jeremy Corbyn, who has a lengthy list of allegations of antisemitism against his name. Criticizing Corbyn’s worldview is an odd way of being antisemitic.
It is not just antisemitism. SSG Sr. Vice President for Strategic Operations David Reaboi noticed a headline in Foreign Policy this weekend that declared — without irony — that the leaders of Saudi Arabia are among “the World’s Most Powerful Islamophobes.” Really? Saudi Arabia is “Islamophobic”? The UAE?
The article does not actually make the claim its headline makes, but it does accuse people of rhetoric that “echo[es] the type” of rhetoric “widely credited with inspiring” the attack in New Zealand. In the wake of the recent shooting in New Zealand, concerns about prejudice against Islam are certainly valid. Yet concerns about some interpretations of Islam — say, the decision by Brunei to stone or whip gays to death — are not blind prejudice, nor some sort of phobia. Even if you hold a traditional religious view of sexuality, as you have every right to do, you can still oppose killing people whose practice disagrees with your view. That’s not wrong, and there are Muslims and Islamic organizations that would agree with you.
Fear of being labeled antisemitic or Islamophobic or otherwise prejudiced is making it hard for good people in these communities to find allies. The founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Tarek Fatah, recently wrote a piece defending Muslims who criticize some interpretations of Islam. He did so because he felt extremist viewpoints were going unchallenged in America and Europe out of fear of seeming prejudiced, so much so that even Muslims couldn’t criticize readings of Islam and find anyone willing to hear what they had to say. Similarly, Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad has been critical of Western women whose attempts to show solidarity with Muslims play into the hands of the very people who are oppressing her personally.
Opposing prejudice is good, and the victory against prejudice deserves its place at the center of American thought. False accusations of prejudice, wielded rhetorically, weaken our commitment. It should be fair game to support or oppose ideas for reasons, in spite of whoever came up with the ideas and as long as the reasons are good.
So how do we figure out who is really acting out of prejudice, and who is merely being accused of doing so? Jim Hanson and I have been talking about the problem. We agree that there are really dangerous extremists — supremacists of any sort — who need to be isolated and cut out of our communities. This is true for pretty much every community there is.
Given the propensity to weaponize these accusations, it would be wise to have an independent standard to which to appeal. However, given that we are all so deeply embedded in the politics that produces these weaponized accusations, it is probably impossible to have such an independent group. The next best thing would be to have two or more competing groups, from opposing sides of the divide. Only in cases where they agree that wrongful bias or prejudice is at work would we apply whatever sanctions follow from such labels.
I suspect the worry people will have about this approach is that ‘the other side’ can’t be trusted not to misuse the veto they’d be given, instead protecting their side’s genuine extremists. Yet substantial agreement does exist. SSG would have no problem agreeing on numerous cases, including many we have already named here, such as white nationalists or the Ku Klux Klan. While we believe that even extreme speech should enjoy protection, we have no problem with labeling it as extreme if indeed it is. We could map out the worst actors without a problem, and then discuss the harder cases.
Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to want more help identifying problematic actors, and determining what to do about them. One danger is that labeling people as extremists or hateful is far too often a rhetorical attempt to exclude them from the discussion. Another danger is that labeling ordinary views as extremist or hateful gives cover to those supremacists who really are hateful or dangerous. It weakens the power of the accusation and, by dividing the resources for monitoring extremists, it gives them a sea in which to swim. That link is to Mao Zedong’s writings on guerrilla warfare, in which he advocates the importance of guerrillas being able to move in such a sea. Exactly because there really are guerrillas out there in these extremist movements — like the New Zealand shooter, but also like the one in Utrecht — we should take care not to make this mistake.