For many weeks now, I have pondered the significance of the controversy over President Bush's nomination of Daniel Pipes to the U.S. Institute of Peace, but I have been puzzled over what I could write about it that had not already been said by men much more eloquent than I, including Charles Krauthammer, David Frum, and the editors of The New Republic. What, in view of Dr. Pipes's many more able defenders, could I possibly have to add that might be of interest or value to anyone else?
Then, while I was turning this question over in my mind, I thought about the town I live in, and its not very distant past, and all at once I realized what it was that I could say about the Pipes controversy that is different, and -- let us hope -- not entirely irrelevant.
About eighty years ago and only a few miles from my home, the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in an explosion of fiery crosses on top of the massive granite outcropping known as Stone Mountain. The men who attended this celebration were convinced that they represented what was finest in southern culture, and that their newly resurrected organization would be dedicated to preserving the heritage of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant values that had been so integral in the creation of the United States.
What is more, the hooded men on top of Stone Mountain were by no means alone in thinking of themselves in this way, since at the time there were many other Americans who would have agreed with this flattering self-assessment, fellow travelers of the KKK and their apologists all across the United States, as well as many of the leading politicians of that not terribly distant epoch, including, of course, distinguished Senators.
Were they right? Did the men on top of Stone Mountain truly stand for what they claimed? Did they indeed speak for all white southerners?
This was a difficult question to determine at the time, because any white southerner who happened to speak out openly against the KKK would almost certainly face some form of retaliation from the Klan itself, administered in varying degrees of severity.
The Klan, after all, wore those hoods and sheets for a reason -- in fact, for two reasons.
First, they wore them to make identification of individual Klan members impossible by those whom the Klan chose to intimidate, black or white, thereby permitting Klan members to perform criminal acts with complete impunity.
Second, to transform a collection of moderately respectable men into a gang of ruthless thugs collectively capable of committing acts that, as individuals, they would not have countenanced. In short, the hood and the sheet were talismans for magically changing run of the mill dentists, commonplace salesmen, and ordinary farmers into terrorists.
And yet, despite the intimidation and despite the terror, some white southerners did speak out against the KKK. Not many, but enough to raise the question: Who truly spoke for southern culture? The Klan and their apologists? Or those who denounced them both?
Now what, you ask, does all of this have to do with Dr. Daniel Pipes, and the current controversy about President Bush's nomination to the U.S. Institute of Peace?
To answer this question, substitute Arab culture for southern culture, Islam for Protestantism, and Islamic terrorists for the KKK; and then ask yourself: Who today is the true defender of Muslim culture and the ethos of Islam -- those who commit terrorist outrages, and their apologists? Or those who, like Dr. Pipes, denounce the actions of such ruthless thugs, and who point steadily to those aspects of the Islamic tradition that are life-affirming, moderate, and humane?
Merely to ask such a question is to reject the paradigm of culture that has come to dominate so much contemporary academic and pseudo-liberal thinking, namely the naïve multiculturalist's simplistic concept of a culture as a single monolithic entity, homogeneous and immutable. Instead, it presupposes a far more sophisticated concept of culture as a locus of conflicting values, from the perspective of which Islamic culture, like southern culture, is a living, changing organism, riddled with deep divisions and fraught with dialectic tensions, punctuated with lacerating periods of internal conflict in which two different interpretations of one and the same culture have struggled for dominance, with one side often intent on destroying every trace of its opponent.
Precisely such a struggle for cultural dominance was fought out in the American south during the course of the twentieth century; and precisely such a struggle for cultural dominance is being fought out today in the Islamic world. Indeed, Islamic culture, in this respect, is no different from southern culture, and indeed, like every culture known to us. It has its better angels, but it has its demons as well; and the eternal question is, as always, Which shall be allowed to triumph?
Daniel Pipes's mission has been to restate this universal truth in terms of the contemporary struggle between the better angels of Islam, on the one hand, and the demons of ruthlessness represented by al-Qaeda and Hamas, on the other -- organizations that, like the KKK, falsely claim to represent an entire culture, but which are in fact only pathological and self-serving distortions of a fragment of this culture.
Today there are no crosses burned on Stone Mountain, and it is inconceivable that any will ever burn there again, so that, in retrospect, it is tempting to conclude that the KKK did not truly stand for southern culture, after all. But this facile conclusion is only possible because there were in our past a handful of men and women who fought heroically against the KKK's pretensions to represent southern culture -- men, like the great newspaper editor, Ralph McGill, who insisted on seeing the KKK as a kind of cultural pathogen whose spread and success could only end by destroying whatever was most valuable and worthy in the culture of the American South.
If one day our children, or our children's children, can look back at this epoch in history, and facilely conclude that al-Qaeda and Hamas did not "really" stand for Islamic culture, it will be thanks to yet another handful of courageous men, both in the West and in the Muslim world itself, who, like Dr. Pipes, have insisted that Islamic culture could not be reduced to the pretensions of terrorist gangs and their apologists.But if, tragically, such a day should never come, it will be in no small part because of those men and women who today are attacking Daniel Pipes and his work, as well as those politicians -- like Senators Kennedy, Harkin, and Dodd -- who permit hysteria and slander to guide where reason and judgment should rule.