By: Alicia Mundy
The Washington press pack isn’t known for pulling punches. But it’s a scary new world right now.
At a recent Washington dinner honoring a popular talking head, several pundits admitted they worry not only about inadvertently offending Arabs and Muslims in discussing America’s war on terrorism but also about direct words or commentary that could provoke retaliatory threats against them or their families. Anthrax in the mail is a real concern. But one columnist unwilling to play it safe is Cal Thomas of Tribune Media Services (TMS).
Since Sept. 11, Thomas, a syndicated columnist read in 542 newspapers, has been writing about what he sees as the inherent difference between American values and those in the Muslim world, and what is at stake. “The growing number of extremists who take the Koran as a declaration of war against all non-Muslims has become a clear and present danger,” he wrote in early October.
He angered several Islamic representatives when he cited a fundamentalist Koran teaching: “Take not the Jews or Christians for your friends and protectors.” He followed it with lines from the Koran urging Muslims to “fight against those who believe not in Allah,” and to make war on other nations “until they embrace Islam.”
“Americans, particularly the American press, don’t pay attention to the words and acts of religious fanatics overseas. Worse, they don’t take them seriously,” Thomas said in a recent interview. He’s studied the history of Islam, and the revisions of the Koran, and says America’s refusal to follow news about religion, culture, and foreign countries puts us at an automatic disadvantage. Thomas believes it’s one of the reasons the country was unprepared for the terrorist attacks and the fallout among many Muslims here and abroad.
While Thomas refuses to label himself as part of any Christian sect, it’s well-known in Washington that he is deeply devout. “I’m a follower of Jesus, which has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with relationship,” he said. Organized religion, he added archly, has been the basis for some of the worst atrocities in history.
Many Washington politicians are Thomas fans — his columns are carried here by The Washington Times. A WTOP radio exec says the station gets terrific response to the two commentaries Thomas does weekly. Recently, Thomas’ articles have touched on problems in immigration policy and potential pitfalls of political correctness. They’ve touched off a storm of protest among Arab-American readers.
The piece quoting the Koran sparked about 700 e-mail messages and letters to TMS. Thomas said many of them read almost identically, suggesting an orchestrated public-relations campaign. Some letters said: “You have taken lines from the Koran out of context. You can also pull lines from the Old and New Testament, and make them mean something terrible.”
“That’s true” said Thomas. “But I say — ‘Hey, nobody in my camp is using the Bible to fly planes into buildings.'”
It must drive so-called “moral relativists” crazy, but Thomas is an unrepentant apostle of Western Civilization and the U.S.A. “The next generation needs to be taught what is good and right and, yes, preferable about our way of life,” he wrote in a recent piece on homeland defense. “We need to make Americans out of American children.”
That column might have been easily dismissed by editors and readers who are used to Thomas’ conservatism. But he got an unexpected boost for his viewpoints in an unnerving column in The Washington Post Wednesday. In a piece titled “Muslim students weigh questions of allegiance,” veteran writer Marc Fisher reported on his visit to a major Islamic academy in Washington’s suburbs. The school is underwritten and controlled by the Iranian government, according to U.S. officials. In interviews, seventh-graders who are U.S. citizens expressed great ambivalence about supporting America against enemies in the Middle East.
A media-relations guide sheet advised, “There is as much evidence pointing away from bin Laden” as there is to him. The principal has authored an essay in a school newsletter that included a rather vivid discourse on Jews. Explaining his school’s view to the Post, the principal said, “We don’t see ourselves in nation-state terms. We are our own nation.”
“That’s part of what I’m talking about,” said Thomas, who complains that Americans and the press don’t study history enough. He gets daily translations of Arab newspapers, journals, and broadcasts from the Middle East as well as here. “There’s a fundamental hatred of Jews, and of Americans, that’s being preached in many more places than the media want to report.”
Thomas may have been a lonely voice on that subject, but, with The Washington Post now singing similar notes, it’s possible that Thomas’ views may have more impact on the terms of the debate in Washington. In the nation’s capital, you don’t have to agree with someone to recognize when you have to pay attention.