Krauthammer's vendetta

Why does the conservative pundit keep insisting a Muslim spiritual leader won't condemn the Sept. 11 attacks, when it isn't true?

Published November 30, 2001 8:51PM (EST)

It's never a good sign when a once-a-week political columnist starts recycling his material, especially when it's done within just a two-month span. But let's assume that when conservative Washington Post pundit Charles Krauthammer decided to offer up a rerun in his column Nov. 23, it was simply a case of trying to coast through the hectic holidays.

What's disturbing, though, is the material Krauthammer chose to recycle: an outrageous accusation against an American Muslim spiritual leader that happens not to be true.

Krauthammer's column last week, "The Silent Imams," argued that in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Muslim leaders have not been loud enough in condemning Osama bin Laden, and attacking the Islamic radicals who hijacked a global religion. "Where were the Muslim theologians and clergy, the imams and mullahs, rising around the world to declare that Sept. 11 was a crime against Islam?" wondered Krauthammer, one of Israel's staunchest media defenders.

To prove his point, the pundit trained his attention on Harvard-educated Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America. Siddiqi was invited to speak at the National Cathedral prayer service in Washington on Sept. 14, attended by President Bush and former Presidents Clinton, Bush, Carter and Ford.

Siddiqi's participation in the solemn prayer service was quite brief. He read a single verse from the Quran and offered up a short prayer. (The Rev. Billy Graham gave the homily at the service.) His presence was mostly symbolic, to bolster Bush's point that the war on terrorism was not a war against Islam.

But Krauthammer criticized the imam for what he didn't say from the altar that day, for not "declaring the attacks contrary to Islam."

It's the exact same claim Krauthammer made in an earlier, Sept. 21 column: "Why did the spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of North America, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, not say that such terrorism is contrary to Islam in his address at the national prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral?" Krauthammer also complained that when Siddiqi said in the service, "Those that lay the plots of evil, for them is a terrible penalty," it wasn't clear from his "vague" wording whether the imam considered the hijackers or America responsible for the "plots of evil." (Siddiqi was quoting from the Quran, which Krauthammer either didn't know or didn't say.)

Clearly, reasonable people can disagree about whether a nationally televised prayer service for a nation still gripped in mourning was the appropriate time and place for Siddiqi to aggressively defend his religion. Krauthammer is entitled to his opinion that it was; others might think it wasn't. But the columnist is being morally dishonest by pretending, especially in his second column, that the imam has not spoken out against the Sept. 11 attacks. In fact, he has.

On the night of Sept. 14, Siddiqi appeared on MSBNC. There, the imam was perfectly clear: "If anybody uses the name of religion [to kill], they're misusing it. Islam, the very name of the religion comes from shalom, which means peace. So, those who have used this kind of method, they have done totally demonic acts, satanic acts that had nothing to do with religion."

Either Krauthammer never saw this exchange, or sought out the transcripts, or else he chose to ignore it, because it contradicted the point he wanted to make -- twice -- with his column.

Krauthammer is also being unfair when he claims Siddiqi's prayer service remarks left the imam's feelings about the Sept. 11 terror attacks ambiguous.

Because here's the rest of Siddiqi's prayer from the Sept. 14 service, which Krauthammer conveniently neglected to reference in both of his accusatory columns:

"In broken and humble hearts and with tears in our eyes we turn to You, oh, Lord, to give us comfort, help us in our distress, keep us together as people of diverse faiths, colors and races. Keep our country strong for the sake of the good and righteousness. And protect us, oh, Lord, from all evil."

It's hard to believe Krauthammer could genuinely think Siddiqi believed "our country" was the source of "evil," given the prayer's heartfelt, grieving tone. If there were any doubt, Siddiqi dispelled it on MSNBC when he was asked what was the message from the prayer service: "That we find the real culprit -- people who have perpetrated this crime so that justice can be done to them. And we save this country and other countries from this kind of terrorism. I talked to President Bush and he has given this statement several times -- the government is determined to find the -- the real criminals, and they should be brought to justice as soon as possible."

It's not that Siddiqi is beyond reproach or criticism. Back in 1989, the Los Angeles Times reported he was noncommittal as to whether capital punishment was an appropriate punishment for Salman Rushdie, after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for supposed Islam-bashing in the book "The Satanic Verses." But Krauthammer wasn't writing about that controversy, only about the imam's post-Sept. 11 statements.

Columnists get to take license that reporters don't, but they don't have carte blanche to commit character assassination. For Krauthammer to do it against a member of the clergy not once, but twice, is unconscionable. Siddiqi deserves an apology.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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