09.15.10

Harvard's Marty Peretz Problem

The longtime New Republic editor ignited a flame war by denouncing Muslim life as “cheap.” Now he’s off to Harvard to be honored. Benjamin Sarlin on the controversy heading toward campus.

Martin Peretz, the owner and longtime editor in chief of The New Republic, is no stranger to fights over Middle East politics. His far-right views on Israeli politics and the Arab world have turned him into a constant target for progressive critics. And the pugnacious Peretz has been all too happy to fire right back.

But Peretz’s latest salvo—a blog post branding Muslim life “cheap”—ignited a firestorm that won’t be easy to extinguish. And as he heads to Harvard next week to be feted for his work as a professor and donor, he’s bringing the controversy to campus—drawing condemnation from the Muslim advocacy group CAIR, and a response from Cambridge.

In inviting Peretz, said Rehab, “Harvard seems to be confirming that Islamophobia is the last accepted form of bigotry.”

In the article in question, Peretz criticized a New York Times editorial for defending Muslim-Americans against prejudice during the debate over whether to build an Islamic community center blocks from ground zero.

Citing violence in Muslim countries, Peretz wrote on his blog that “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.”

The statement drew fire from The New York Times’ Nick Kristof. In response, Peretz apologized, sort of—writing a follow-up post in which he said that his sentence questioning whether Muslims were “worthy” of constitutional rights “genuinely embarrasses me, and I deeply regret it.” However, he stood by his comment that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” claiming his words were “a statement of fact, not value.”

Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that Harvard should have to answer for Peretz’s comments.

"We're not calling on Harvard to reject the invite. However, we have one simple question for Harvard that we'd like to pose publicly,” Rehab told The Daily Beast. “That is, simply: Would they invite a speaker who writes that 'Jewish life is cheap, especially for Jews' and/or that we should ban First Amendment rights for Irish Americans or African Americans or any other group?"

In inviting Peretz, said Rehab, “Harvard seems to be confirming that Islamophobia is the last accepted form of bigotry.” A Harvard student group, the Middle East Law Students Association, e-mailed a statement calling on the school to cancel Peretz's invitation outright, writing that "It is a sad testament on the state of public discourse in the U.S. that sweeping generalizations that masquerade as factual statements and demonize Muslims only because they are Muslims are not rebuffed in the strongest terms. Peretz should be isolated and the views he expressed should not be lent any legitimacy from Harvard or any other public institution."

Robert Paul Wolff, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who is being honored at the same event as Peretz, joined in the criticism. He “thought seriously about canceling,” he wrote in a blog post, deciding to attend only after the organizer agreed not to seat him next to Peretz. Despite his personal views on the issue, Wolff told The Daily Beast that he would “be surprised if there were a fuss [over the event], especially considering that Peretz ‘apologized’ for half of the remarks.” Reached by phone, Peretz offered the following response to CAIR’s comments before hanging up: “The notion that after teaching 45 years at Harvard and people giving money in my honor that I have to defend myself—please.”

Harvard is taking the criticism more seriously. The school is proceeding with the event, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the school’s Social Studies program—as well as the creation of an undergraduate research fund in Peretz’s name. (Some high-profile friends of Peretz’s, including Al Gore, Washington Post editor David Ignatius, and director Edward Zwick, are raising money in parallel to the event.)

But the university sent the following statement to The Daily Beast:

“As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal protection under the law. The recent assertions by Dr. Peretz are therefore distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so.

It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views.

We are ultimately stronger as a university when we maintain our commitment to the most basic freedoms that enable the robust exchange of ideas. The undergraduate research fund donated by friends, former students, and colleagues of Dr. Peretz was established earlier this year to recognize his teaching and scholarship as well as his stewardship of the social studies program from its inception in the 1960s through the 1990s. The fund will enable undergraduates to undertake significant research experiences as part of the social sciences curriculum and strengthen our commitment to rigorous intellectual inquiry. ”

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.