Stephen M. Walt

Will Harvard do the right thing? (Updated)

Will Harvard do the right thing? (Updated)

Writing in yesterday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called attention to a recent blog post by New Republic editor Martin Peretz. Here’s what Peretz had to say about American Muslims, in the context of the current debate over the Park 51 project and the rising tide of Islamophobia here in the United States:

But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood.  So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.

As Kristof rightly observes: "Is it possible to imagine the same kind of casual slur tossed off about blacks or Jews?" And as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald shows here, Peretz’ bigotry was not a careless choice of words or an isolated incident. On the contrary, he has a long history of similarly racist or bigoted remarks about Arabs, Muslims, and especially Palestinians.

Here’s where it gets interesting. As M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America reported last week, on September 25th Peretz is due to be honored by a group of long-time friends — including a number of Harvard faculty — who have raised funds to endow an undergraduate research fund in his name. (The event is apparently tied to the 50th anniversary of Harvard’s social studies program, where Peretz used to teach).

Does Harvard University really want to have an undergraduate research fund named after someone who would espouse such hateful views? Would all those people who contributed money and who will presumably show up for the event have done so if Peretz made a similarly grotesque statement about blacks or Catholics?

Please note that this isn’t an issue of academic freedom or free speech, as nobody is questioning Peretz’s right to say whatever hateful things he wants. But at a moment in our nation’s history when religious tolerance is being openly challenged, one would hope that premier academic institutions would be setting a positive example. It will be a sad day for Harvard if it turns a blind eye to Peretz’ reprehensible attitudes and pockets the money. And in the absence of a heartfelt public apology by Peretz himself, you’d think all those admirers would be having second thoughts.

(For additional commentary on this incident, see James Fallows, Matt Yglesias, and Emily Hauser, plus this worthy statement by students at Brandeis University (Peretz’ alma mater).

Update: No doubt stung by the publicity, Peretz has now issued an apology here. He says he doesn’t actually believe the sentence he wrote about American Muslims being ineligible for Constitutional protections, but repeats his belief that "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims." Readers can judge for themselves how "heartfelt" this apology is.