August 21, 2005 | National Review Online

Sometimes It’s Who You Offend

Radio-talk-show host Michael Graham is out of a job.

Let’s imagine a scenario that’s not so fictional. Suppose we had a big multinational corporation called Filch. Its code of conduct includes some dubious provisions that can be interpreted to encourage aggressive business and accounting practices. Filch is huge, and overwhelmingly composed of decent, honest officers and employees. But a not insubstantial cabal of its officials, taking advantage of the climate created by the code, cheats its suppliers and customers in addition to cooking the books. When the shenanigans are publicized, the shareholders lose millions of dollars.

So a radio commentator, in the context of a reasonably accurate description of the above circumstances, comes out and says: “Filch is a fraud, through and through.”

Is that hyperbole? Perhaps. After all, fraudsters comprised only a small percentage of the personnel. The commentator's statement could be taken to tar the law-abiding majority with the outrages of the thieves. And while the corporate code contained troublesome sections, it didn't force anyone to go out and commit crimes, and most did not. On the other hand, great harm has been done. Further, it is settled law that a business itself (i.e., the corporate entity) can be prosecuted for offenses committed by its officials, even though most of the company's actors are undeniably blameless.

So our commentator is, at most, a little over the top in one of his characterizations. But especially given that his description was otherwise on the mark, and that he made a point of noting the innocence of the vast run of Filch's personnel, the remark is within the realm of fair argument. It's certainly not a firing offense.

Unless, that is, the wrong people get offended. And that's what happened to Michael Graham.

Graham, a commentator on ABC Radio in Washington (WMAL 630), was fired this weekend after three weeks of drum-beating by the ethnic grievance industry's robust Muslim wing.

Here is the July 21 soundbite that did him in: “Islam has, sadly, become a terrorist organization.”

Sounds pretty bad, right? Particularly given that he refused to apologize.
But hold on a second. Here is more of what he said, with the soundbite in context:

Because of the mix of Islamic theology that — rightly or wrongly — is interpreted to promote violence, added to an organizational structure that allows violent radicals to operate openly in Islam's name with impunity, Islam has, sadly, become a terrorist organization. It pains me to say it. But the good news is it doesn't have to stay this way, if the vast majority of Muslims who don't support terror will step forward and re-claim their religion.

Let's parse this, shall we?

Islamic theology is amenable to the interpretation that it promotes violence. This cannot be open to debate among serious people at this point. The scriptures speak for themselves, including some of the final (chronologically, that is) verses in the Koran — specifically, the Ninth Sura's verse 5 (“… [F]ight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) …”); and verse 29 (“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the last day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, from among the people of the book, until they pay the jizya [a poll-tax required in Islamic lands from those who do not convert to Islam] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”)

Or, for example, these (which I've cited here before): Sura 47:4 (Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers in fight, smite at their necks; at length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind the captives firmly: therefore is the time for either generosity or ransom until the war lays down its burdens….”); Sura 2:191 (“[S]lay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they first fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who reject faith”); Sura 5:33 (“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief throughout the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land”); and Sura 8:12 (“Remember thy Lord inspired the angels with the message: 'I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: Smite ye above their necks and smite all their fingertips off them”).

More to the point, Islamic theology has in fact been construed to promote violence, repeatedly, by Muslims — including several Islamic clerics deemed to have special authority in the religion due to their education and training. The resulting carnage is the defining issue of our era. Surely that cannot be denied by reasonable people.

Why has brutality in the name of Islam endured? Well, it is because, as Graham posits, this violence — driven by an interpretation of scriptures that self-evidently lend themselves to just such an interpretation — has long been coupled with “an organizational structure that allows violent radicals to operate openly in Islam's name.”

The eminent Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis described the phenomenon in his 1993 book, Islam and the West. Divergences among Muslims in the interpretation of Islam, Lewis explained, are not easily labeled “heterodox” or “heretical,” for such notions are Western ones that have “little or no relevance to the history of Islam, which has no synods, churches, or councils to define orthodoxy, and therefore none to define and condemn departures from orthodoxy.”

Taken together, the lack of formal hierarchy, the plain language of Koranic passages, and what is, indisputably, the military tradition out of which Islam emerged, have made it difficult for Muslims convincingly to condemn terrorism as antithetical to their creed. Meanwhile, acts of terrorism have continued unabated. Thus, the system is open to the reasonable conclusions that: (a) it promotes violence, (b) it has spawned violence, and (c) it has been unable to restrain violence despite the vastly superior number of non-violent adherents.

Michael Graham connected these dots and reasonably found that the system, Islam, was to blame. Now, do I wish he hadn't phrased it quite so bluntly by calling Islam itself a “terror organization”? Yes. Even if his conclusion was within the bounds of acceptable argument, in the same sense that branding the entire company a “fraud” is not unreasonable in my multi-national corporation example, the comment was not helpful. It was certain to irritate our allies in the war — authentic moderate Muslims — to call their religion “a terrorist organization.” And even if Graham was convinced he was right, being right is not always a complete defense to incivility when one has been gratuitously provocative. He certainly could have found a way to apologize for his tone without apologizing for his point.

But all this is substantially mitigated by Graham's closing sentiments. He pointedly left his listeners with the “good news” that the vast majority of Muslims do not support terror committed in the name of their religion. And he offered what sounded like a very sincere hope that they can and will take steps to marginalize and discredit the militants' use of Islam.

On balance, Graham did what successful radio hosts do. He made a defensible argument in a manner designed to startle. The controversial phrase was ill-advised, but it was very far from the hanging offense it has become. And while it seems unduly stubborn for him to have resisted at least some expression of regret about his phrasing, that should not, in any event, have been a precondition for keeping his job.

The role of Islam in terrorism is a crucial issue. There is currently a good deal of contention, much of it from Muslim interest groups, that terrorism is a reaction to political conditions rather than a result of doctrine. That many of us would disagree — vehemently — with that assessment hardly means the argument should not be heard. But it is at least equally viable and appropriate to air the position that much of the problem of Islamic terrorism lies with Islam itself — something that even courageous Muslim moderates have acknowledged.

This was not a case of loathsome bombast. Graham made a thoughtful and defensible argument that was marred by a poor choice of words he should have realized could be painful to some of his natural allies. It was worthy of a wince, not a pink slip. In firing him, ABC not only chooses sides — the wrong side — in our most important public debate. It helps the shock troops of political correctness turn the proper focus of that debate, Islam, into a third rail.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.