(See Update below, item #6.) I've already had my say on the merits of this one. My purpose now is to summarize several developments in the "Muslim life is cheap" controversy surrounding Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic. Subsequent installments will include samples from the large quantity of eloquent comments I have received, both pro and con the argument I was making.
Listing the "for the record" developments:
1) On the occasion of Yom Kippur, Martin Peretz wrote an "Atonement" on the New Republic's site saying that he regretted his "wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters."
2) Harvard groups representing Islamic, Latino, and African-American students have issued a letter protesting an upcoming honor for Peretz at Harvard, and have posted a related petition for signature. A similar letter from students, faculty, and alumni of Brandeis, Peretz's undergraduate alma mater, is here.
3) The Harvard letter includes a link to something I had not seen before, and which seems no longer to be on the the New Republic site. (I could not find it on a site search.) According to this web.archive.org link, in 2006 Peretz wrote, concerning levels of bloodshed in Iraq and the vicinity:
>>I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan.<<
4) The initial Harvard response to the controversy was not one of the university's more impressive efforts. In an Emily Litella-like statement to Benjy Sarlin of the Daily Beast, a university spokesman said, "It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views." Of course no sane person has questioned Peretz's right to express his views. The disagreement involves the university's planned honor for him and his work. (Also from Sarlin here.)
5) A few days ago Matthew Yglesias forcefully argued that the impending Harvard fellowship named for Peretz was unlikely to be jeopardized, for reasons involving the fundamentals of university finance.
5a) A logical extension of Yglesias's argument is that Harvard and its donors might most effectively be urged not to revoke this fellowship but to create another, matching one, preferentially for Muslim students from the U.S. or abroad. Growing-pie solution; win-win-win. To the best of my understanding, many fellowships that are preferentially for people from certain geographic, racial, or even religious backgrounds already exist at Harvard.
Update 6) My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates goes straight at the argument that, whatever Peretz's excessive views, he has been a wonderful influence in journalism. Worth reading very carefully.
Now, let's move to reader comments. I will start with two interestingly offsetting ones. The first is from a Westerner with childhood experience in an Islamic culture. He writes:
>>My father was one of the last British officials of the Raj. After partition, he worked for ten years as a district official for the new Pakistan government and I spent my early years in a tolerant Baluchistan, safe and happy. Decades passed and I found myself a US citizen and living in Florida on 9/11. Then, despite a generally liberal constitution, I spent several years loathing the name of Islam and the fact that moderate Muslims had seemingly failed to prevent the tragedy.
Now comes a further turn in my life: the latest upsurge in Islamophobia has brought me back to my philosophical roots. While not fully able to account for the phenomenon, I am appalled by its manifestation. My inclination is to blame a combination of a bad economy and demagoguery from the likes of Glenn Beck. When we so desperately need them, where are the moderate Republicans of stature to put a stop to this foul nonsense?<<
After the jump, a different reaction from a Westerner now in Saudi Arabia.
This note comes from the author of the "Sand Gets In My Eyes," a non-Muslim American woman who has lived for years in Saudi Arabia. She writes:
>>I would like to add a different perspective on the statement that "Muslim life is cheap".
I have lived and worked and blogged here in Saudi for nearly seven years. Awhile back I posted about some common knowledge stuff here as it pertains to the value of human life. I'm adding a link to that post, but the upshot is that, altho a Muslim life is NOT cheap here in the cradle of Islam, all non-Muslim lives are.
I appreciate my perspective as a Christian in the center of Islam is markedly different than the experiences of others living outside the Kingdom, but I am always frustrated when those in the West assume that all Islam is what they see out their window.
The view of Islam from mine, I guarantee, is much much harsher and - most would say - more realistic.<<
Why do I consider this message, and the much more detailed reports on the author's site, not to be "bigotry"? Because they are instead "criticism": observed arguments, specific conclusions, about particular institutions in a particular place where adherents of a particular kind of Islam prevail. I can't weigh them first hand against my own observations, since I have been to Saudi Arabia only once, many years ago; and others on scene might completely disagree with them. But they don't pretend to be about more than the specific culture and circumstances the author has experienced. They are about "Saudi Arabia as one person sees it at this moment," not "the Muslims" as a mass.