The good, the just, and the chic of the United States enjoy filling the role of Islam's patrons. The Establishment emphasizes several benign and simplistic themes: There is no clash of civilizations. Terrorism is not Islamic. Islam is compatible with American ideals. It adds to American life. Americans must learn to appreciate Islam.
Whence sprang these views that blithely ignore the myriad problems associated with Islam in its relations with non-Muslims, from jihad to dhimmitude (living as second-class citizens)? Not from the remarkable 1796 U.S. document promising "no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims]," for that assured neutrality, not favoritism.
In fact, this patronage dates back to July 1979 and the founding of a now-forgotten but once-grand initiative called the "National Committee to Honor the Fourteenth Centennial of Islam" (for short, Islam Centennial Fourteen, or ICF). In celebrating the turn of the Islamic century on Nov. 21, 1979, the committee hoped to counter growing tensions with Iran's new revolutionary government.
ICF would "foster among Americans a greater appreciation of the cultural achievements of the Islamic civilization." It would provide information on Islam's "art and architecture, its customs and ceremonies, its languages and literatures, its peoples and their philosophies." It would sponsor a documentary film titled Islam, a panel discussion on national television, a traveling exhibition called the "Heritage of Islam," books, and a multiyear series of talks.
A spectacular bevy of Establishmentarians agreed to join the ICF board, including presidential relatives, former cabinet secretaries, business tycoons, religious leaders, and a glittering array of cultural figures. The chairmen of giant companies with major Middle Eastern interests, such as Exxon, Mobil, Fluor, and Bechtel, sat on the committee and provided much of its funding.
The U.S. government, starting with President Carter, enthusiastically endorsed and warmly applauded the ICF: "It is important that your Committee's programs enjoy the support and participation of as many Americans as possible. ... I will encourage involvement. ... You have my continued interest and support." President Reagan hoped that "the American people will avail themselves fully of the great experience this exhibition offers" and Vice President George H.W. Bush opened the traveling exhibition. ICF activities benefited from federal, state, and local funding.
A gala celebration at the National Gallery of Art on the last day of the Islamic year 1399 (equivalent to on Nov. 20, 1979), was to kick off the public relations campaign. But the Tehran embassy seizure on Nov. 4, undertaken in the name of Islam, interfered, causing this inaugural event to be canceled. Yet worse, on Nov. 21, the first day of the year 1400, mobs burned down the U.S. embassy in Pakistan as revenge for imagined American complicity in the siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca.
This toxic combination sent ICF into a hibernation from which it never recovered as ICF's executive director, William R. Crawford Jr., ruefully acknowledged "We didn't want to step off into a hostile environment." Still, Crawford tried to ignore difficult facts, falsely asserting that "Ayatollah Khomeini said he acted in the name of Islam, which of course he wasn't." Such apologetics convinced precious few and ICF's claim that Muslims and Americans share "fundamental concepts, including nonviolence and brotherhood among all the peoples of the world" had temporarily become untenable. The ICF faded into a much-deserved obscurity.
But if Islam Centennial Fourteen lost the battle, it won the war. It initiated Establishment patterns remaining with us forty years later: Hiding problems associated with Islamism (for example, Hillary Clinton). Insisting that Americans are to blame for Muslim animosity toward them (President Obama's Cairo speech). Dismissal of Islamic motives behind violence (the denial surrounding ISIS). Creating a precedent of U.S. government promotion of Islam (such as building mosques at the taxpayers' expense).
Establishment efforts to ignore Islamic imperialism and Iranian bellicosity go back exactly forty years.
On this last point: to be sure, ICF legalistically avoided religion ("a greater appreciation of the cultural achievements of the Islamic civilization") but Islam, not Persian rugs, was always its focus. Such taxpayer funding raised constitutional questions about the separation of church and state that still are not yet adequately addressed.
The origins of today's Establishment efforts to ignore the stubborn facts of Islamic imperialism and Iranian bellicosity go back exactly forty years; Americans live in a country shaped by prejudices and interests initiated at a time of crisis. When oh when will we escape that benighted mentality?
Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum.