- - Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The good, just and chic of the United States consistently fulfill the role of Islam’s patron. The establishment emphasizes several benign and simplistic themes, as I outlined in 2002: There is no clash of civilizations. Terrorism is not Islamic. Islam is compatible with American ideals. It adds to American life. Americans must learn to appreciate Islam.

Whence sprang these views that blissfully ignore the myriad problems associated with Islam in its relations with non-Muslims, from jihad to dhimmitude? Not from the remarkable 1796 U.S. document promising “no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims],” for that assured neutrality, not favoritism. 

In fact, this patronage dates back to July 1979 and the founding of a now-forgotten but once-grand initiative called the “National Committee to Honor the Fourteenth Centennial of Islam” (for short, Islamic Centennial Fourteen, or ICF). In celebrating the turn of the Islamic century on Nov. 21, 1979, the committee hoped to counter acute tensions with Iran’s new revolutionary government. 

It would “foster among Americans a greater appreciation of the cultural achievements of the Islamic civilization.” It would provide information on Islam’s “art and architecture, its customs and ceremonies, its languages and literatures, its peoples and their philosophies.” It would sponsor a documentary film titled “Islam,” a panel discussion on national television, a traveling exhibition called the “Heritage of Islam,” books, and a multiyear series of talks. 

A spectacular bevy of establishmentarians agreed to join the ICF board, including presidential relatives, former cabinet secretaries, business tycoons, religious leaders and a glittering array of cultural figures. The chairmen of giant companies with heavy Middle Eastern interests, such as Exxon, Mobil, Fluor and Bechtel, sat on the committee and provided much of its funding. 

The U.S. government, starting with President Carter, enthusiastically endorsed and warmly applauded the ICF: “It is important that your Committee’s programs enjoy the support and participation of as many Americans as possible. … I will encourage involvement. … You have my continued interest and support.” Vice President George H.W. Bush opened the traveling exhibition and President Reagan hoped that “the American people will avail themselves fully of the great experience this exhibition offers.” ICF activities benefited from federal, state and local funding. 

A gala celebration at the National Gallery of Art on the last day of the Islamic year 1399 (equivalent to on Nov. 20, 1979) was to kick off the public relations campaign. But the Tehran embassy seizure on Nov. 4, undertaken in the name of Islam, interfered, causing this inaugural event to be cancelled. Yet worse, on Nov. 21, equivalent to the first day of the year 1400, mobs burned down the U.S. embassy in Pakistan as revenge for alleged American complicity in the siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca. 

ICF’s executive director, William R. Crawford Jr., ruefully acknowledged “We didn’t want to step off into a hostile environment” as this toxic combination sent ICF into a hibernation from which it never recovered. Still, Mr. Crawford attempted to ignore difficult facts, falsely asserting that “Ayatollah Khomeini said he acted in the name of Islam, which of course he wasn’t.” Such apologetics convinced precious few and the idea that Muslims and Americans share “fundamental concepts, including nonviolence and brotherhood among all the peoples of the world” had become temporarily untenable. The ICF faded into its much-deserved obscurity. 

But if Islamic Centennial Fourteen lost the battle, it won the war. It initiated patterns that remain still with us 40 years later: Establishment figures hiding problems associated with Islam (for example, Hillary Clinton). Insisting that Americans are to blame for Muslim animosity toward them. (President Obama’s Cairo speech). Dismissal of Islamic motives behind violence (the denial surrounding ISIS). Creating a precedent of U.S. government promotion of Islam (such as building mosques at the taxpayers’ expense). 

On this last point: To be sure, ICF legalistically avoided religion (“a greater appreciation of the cultural achievements of the Islamic civilization”) but Islam, not miniature paintings, was always its focus. Such taxpayer funding raised constitutional questions about the separation of church and state not yet adequately addressed.

The origins of today’s establishment efforts to ignore the stubborn facts of Islamic imperialism and Iranian bellicosity go back exactly 40 years; Americans live in a country shaped by prejudices and interests initiated at a time of crisis. When oh when will we escape its benighted mentality? 

• Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.

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