Yes, The Atlantic Has An Islam Problem

February 23, 2015

By Fredrik deBoer

Of course I take the question of European anti-Semitism seriously. And taking that question seriously involves discussing it responsibly, and discussing it responsibly means meeting an evidentiary basis. It’s a mark of how unhealthy our conversation about this topic is that discussion of that evidentiary basis occurs under the shadow of threat, threat of being labeled anti-Semitic for asking whether a rise in anti-Semitism is or is not occurring. Whether or not Islamaphobia is real at all is a question that The Atlantic finds perfectly permissible to ask. I invite you to consider whether the magazine would ever even think to ask a similar question about anti-Semitism.  No conversation about these issues can possibly be constructive or worthwhile without acknowledging that casting aspersions on Islam is a permissible, mainstream activity for popular publications like The Atlantic in a way that it is not for Judaism. No conversation about these issues can possibly be constructive or worthwhile without acknowledging that the United States and the broader Western world has engaged in a ceaseless campaign of violence against the greater Muslim world for decades. If you write a piece in which you argue that Muslims are responsible for persecuting other groups without discussing the relentlessly campaign of invasion, manipulation, espionage, and slaughter that has been carried out against them by the most powerful governments in the world, you are not a journalist, you’re a propagandist.

I don’t expect Conor Friedersdorf to police his writing in order to avoid attracting the support of bigots, as the comments section of his piece demonstrates he surely did. I do  expect him to acknowledge that the mainstream media in general and his magazine in particular is perfectly willing to ask dark questions about the nature of Islam and whether it is a threat to modernity in a way that it would never ask of other religions, and I further expect him to acknowledge that this tendency has teeth, given the incredibly casual way with which this country treats Muslim life. Of course we have a responsibility to be vigilant about European anti-Semitism. That responsibility is universally acknowledged in the American press. Is there any similar unanimity when it comes to protecting the lives of innocent Muslims living in the tribal borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan? To protecting the due process rights of Muslims rotting in Guantanamo? To protecting the human rights of Muslims in the Palestinian territories?

Along with many, I am of the opinion that the constant frivolous accusations of anti-Semitism that are used to discipline and exclude those who are critical of America’s foreign policy actually make it more difficult to identify and challenge actual anti-Semitism. Every time protest of Israel’s illegal, brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories is attacked as inherently anti-Semitic, our ability to identify genuine anti-Semitism is damaged. Every time that happens, we lose an opportunity to engage those who are not possessed by hatred of Jews but who are adamant in their criticism of Israel. Whether the priority should be to engage those who are capable of being engaged or to ritualistically shame and exclude those who do not toe the mainstream line on Israeli policy is up to the conscience of the individual.

Employing David Frum and Jeffrey Goldberg, giving them carte blanche to peddle calls for violence against the greater Muslim world, is not the same as the other kinds of failings I regularly criticize in the media. It’s not the same because Frum and Goldberg have blood on their hands. Through Goldberg’s horrendous failures to satisfy the most basic requirements of journalism, whether due to incompetence or careerism or political bias, he directly and umambiguously contributed to one of the greatest disasters in the history of American foreign policy, one which resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Employing someone who admitted in his book to participating in the abuse of prisoners while working as a prison camp guard is not the same as publishing dumb things on education or the economy. Having a writer stake your magazine’s credibility on a cover story saying an attack on Iran by Israel was imminent, when there was every reason to suspect that the writer was being played by hardliners within the Israel government to make war seem inevitable, and then rehiring him is not the same as publishing people whose work I don’t like. Employing the man who coined the phrase “Axis of Evil,” and in so doing helping to ruin the best chance for detente between Iran and the United States in a generation, is not the same as publishing something I disagree with politically. Giving a man who was a key architect of the case for war on Iraq a platform to constantly troll of yet-more American war on Muslims targets is not the same as publishing something annoying. To reward people who have such a record of miserable failure and existential professional incompetence by giving them a platform of such prominence to continue to deepen their mistakes is something different entirely, and I will not withhold criticism of The Atlantic for fear of hurting the feelings of other writers it employs.

If you are a young journalist or political writer, and you review the post-Iraq careers of those in the media who were for or against the Iraq war, the message is powerful and incontrovertible: when the next war effort comes around, as it surely will, be for it rather than against it. For if you go person by person through the rolls, you will find that those who were on what we widely acknowledge to be the wrong side of the question have achieved vastly more career success in media than those who were right. Those who were wrong, terribly, disastrously wrong, have gone on to far greater fame and fortune than those who were right, in dominant majorities. They are, as a class, speaking from positions of the greatest mainstream authority or drowning in VC cash, with the black swan exception of Judith Miller simply serving to prove the rule. That’s true whether the writers in question engaged in the apology theatrics that briefly came into fashion. (Such “apologies” usually took the form of being “wrong but for the right reasons,” of course.) No publication better reflects this tendency to reward those who were unforgivably wrong about the biggest foreign policy mistake in decades than The Atlantic.

People ask why media never gets better. It never gets better because its members have no incentive to get better. When failure is rewarded and success ignored, the result is a series of broken institutions. At the airport, yesterday, I watched Wolf Blizter and his “terrorism expert” guest busily validate the case for ground war against ISIS. So: which way do you think the ambitious young strivers in our media will ultimately break?

How badly would you have to fail in your job as a journalist or opinion writer before The Atlantic would refuse to hire you? Just how badly do you have to fail before the publication says “no thanks”? This is a question that I have been asking for years and years. I find it a perfectly uncontroversial question given the hiring history of the magazine, and yet it is constantly dismissed as axe-grinding, as obsession, or as ad hominem. I will ask again: how badly does someone have to screw up that The Atlantic would refuse to hired them? Given, that is, that they are towing the right line to satisfy the magazine’s self-identified neoconservative owner. It’s not a rhetorical question.

Any honest consideration of The Atlantic‘s publishing history in the last fifteen years must admit that an inordinate number of their pieces take as their subject whether Muslims are uniquely violent, uniquely incompatible with modernity, uniquely deserving of suspicion, inherently bent towards extremism, or worthy of being considered the subject of bigotry and oppression. I am willing to discuss the magazine’s history on these matters but I am only willing to do so with those who are committed to doing so honestly. On the very day that Friedersdorf’s piece appeared, so did yet another Frum piece inveighing against the refusal to blame Islam for extremism, and so did Graeme Wood’s infinitely self-impressed piece taking the courageous, bold, contrarian stance that ISIS is bad, which has been widely interpreted as an argument for the inherent extremist tendencies of Muslims.

(Update: read Jacob Bacharach on Wood’s historical illiteracy and absurd pretensions to daring.) The magazine occasionally publishes pieces that cut against this narrative, including some from Fridersdorf, for which I’m glad; it constantly publishes Muslim-trolling articles. You want to defend the magazine from these charges? Go ahead. But don’t tell me that I’m not identifying real aspects of the institutional and editorial culture of a publication that has given endless space to those who grind the axe against Islam, and in so doing helped normalize prejudices that are already mainstream.

Photo: Traci Lawson