NYT Searches for the Leader of the Anti-Shariah Movement, Finds Me Instead

I was featured, complete with pictures (and online video), in a 2,000+ word New York Times article about the anti-sharia movement in this country, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrea Elliot, which appeared in the Times' July 31st Sunday edition, front page, above the fold.  Impressive, no?  Unfortunately, Ms. Elliot exposed herself as biased and in denial, and has since given an interview to NPR in which she more openly evidences journalistic condescension, in addition to the bias one normally expects from the mainstream media.  The story was quite explicitly intended to link a national movement to a single individual, me, and then to suggest that this individual -- again, me -- was manipulative, hidden, and controversial.  This is evident from the title of the article: "The Man Behind the Anti-Sharia Movement."

The truth remains at a distance, and this analysis will suggest only a more objective telling of the facts.  I say "suggest" because I am the subject of the Times "profile," and as such I cannot realistically claim objectivity.  I will allow others more at a distance to weigh in.  One writer, Ben Shapiro, whom I don't know, has already done that, and I must note my appreciation (see "In Defense of David Yerushalmi"). 

We begin at the beginning.  Ms. Elliot and I have traded emails on sharia and related matters for about 3 or 4 years.  We first "met" when she did a long profile of Dhaba (Debbie) Almontaser, the spearhead and one-time principal of New York City's failed Arabic-centric public school called the Khalil Gibran International Academy.  (While KGIA's doors remain open, everyone both within and without the school's community of present and past teachers, administrators, students, parents, and early supporters admit it has failed as both an educational center and as a "multi-cultural" outreach.)

Ms. Elliot contacted me several months before the "anti-sharia movement" article was to run saying she wanted only background on the movement since she knew I was involved.  I conditioned my agreement to provide background on an explicit commitment from her that the article was not about me.  She agreed.  When we finally sat down for a three-hour lunch, it was evident at the end of the "background" discussion that Ms. Elliot was focusing too much on personalities, me especially, and not enough on the substantive arguments against sharia.  Every time I pressed her, though, she assured me that the story was "not about you." 

Well, that little bit of journalistic dishonesty we all know is part of the tradecraft.  Journalists will often deceive their subjects about the focus of an interview to get them to open up.  My colleagues and I understood this and discussed the risks of any interview with Ms. Elliot and the New York Times.  But we concluded those risks versus a major story by an acclaimed journalist, even a card-carrying member of the elite Manhattan progressive club like Ms. Elliot, were worth taking.  Why?  Because public policy work is as much about creating a serious discussion and framing it in some non-PC context as it is about suggesting actual legislation or new policies.

And, this goal was most certainly attained.  As Ms. Elliot points out in her story and in her interview with NPR, Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy was, along with others in this effort, able to take a failed national security policy and policy discourse, which treated Islamic-inspired jihad as some kind of ultimate perversion of Islam lacking dogmatic and normative grounding, into a serious discussion of classical and still extant authoritative Islamic law -- sharia -- as the threat doctrine motivating jihadists from all over the globe.  Determining what doctrine drives your enemy, especially one that can explain both the recruitment capabilities of your enemy and how he is able to bridge cultural, language, and nationality differences, and even intra-religious sect animosities, to come together to fight the West as the common enemy is the second step to defeating the enemy.  The first step, of course, is being able to articulate who the enemy is beyond the intentionally vague nomenclature of "terrorist" or "extremist."

Moving beyond Ms. Elliot's purposeful deception that she was not writing about me, we come to her writing style (we'll deal with substance as a final matter).  Ms. Elliot treats her targets -- me and the "anti-sharia movement" -- more broadly in similar fashion.  She begins by describing the "movement" as a kind of simplified ignorance.  She accomplishes this by implicitly ridiculing a politician in Tennessee who, rather than dealing with the serious matters of the state's unemployment, home foreclosures, and the like, is dealing with the problem of sharia as a threat to the U.S. and to Tennessee.

Everyone will of course recall, but not because Ms. Elliot mentions it, that Carlos Bledsoe was an African-American Christian living in Tennessee where he was converted and "radicalized" sufficiently to attack an army recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas, leaving one soldier dead and one injured.  And, many will recall, again not because Ms. Elliot mentions it, that it is the Obama administration's attorney general, Eric Holder, who informs us that homegrown jihad terrorism inspired by the likes of Yemen-based Awlaki is "one of the things that keeps me up at night" because "[t]he threat has changed from simply worrying about foreigners coming here, to worrying about people in the United States, American citizens -- raised here, born here and who for whatever reason, have decided that they are going to become radicalized and take up arms against the nation in which they were born."

While Ms. Elliot will no doubt plead that her reporting was a "fair" and "objective" narration of facts, a "fair" and "objective" assessment belies this claim.  Beyond her not-so-veiled ridicule of the anti-sharia movement, she allows herself this bit of rather subjective "analysis" of the merits of the anti-sharia movement: "Yet, for all its fervor, the movement is arguably directed at a problem more imagined than real."  Of course any assertion of fact to support a policy can be "arguably" something else.  In this day and age, you can find "authoritative" voices to argue about anything (battling "experts" in courtrooms across the country demonstrate this point).

But, Ms. Elliot positioned the "arguably" irrational anti-sharia movement as fighting phantoms without bothering to actually articulate what the threat from sharia is, or "arguably" is.  That is, she set up a straw man.  Thus, she turns the sharia threat into a caricature of a Tennessee politician ignoring "real" problems for "imagined" ones and then attaches a "fervor" to all of us who understand sharia as the enemy's common threat doctrine.  The word "fervor" of course is to lend a sense of faith-based, that is, not real, religiosity to the "anti-sharia movement." 

And, in typical journalistic "objective" fashion, throughout the article, Ms. Elliot sets up in opposition every caricature of the "anti-sharia movement" with a serious academic or "Muslim leader" who dismisses the caricature as an absurd argument, just as one might expect.  What is the point of a 2,000+ word article using this formulation if not simply to ridicule one side of the argument?

Ms. Elliot then wastes no time in allowing her readers to pinpoint the source of this religious "fervor."  As she writes: 

In fact, it is the product of an orchestrated drive that began five years ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the office of a little-known lawyer, David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam. Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Mr. Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.

Ah, a Jew, fervently Hasidic no less, with a "history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam."  He is the Svengali behind this crazy movement.  Ms. Elliot buttresses the "controversial statements" by citing the Anti-Defamation League's attack on me as "bigoted" and then takes a few of my statements, typically phrased as questions in long and involved essays, out of context to suggest to the reader that I am somehow sympathetic to the Founding Fathers' embrace of a representative government based on equality that compelled inequality against blacks and women.  Progressive and left-wing hit-groups like the ADL take my critique of conservatives who bury this problem of our founding generation and turn it on its head to somehow "prove" my bigotry.  Or, this cadre of deep thinkers takes my criticism of a politically correct discourse which prevents us from speaking about racial issues seriously and pronounces that this makes me a "white supremacist." 

Again, anyone, including Ms. Elliot, knows that I have never written anything that remotely speaks in favor of bigotry or "white supremacist" nonsense.  Indeed, my professional career and my published works demonstrate my commitment to protecting constitutional liberties for all Americans.  But, Ms. Elliot dare not "analyze" my actual work and inform her readers, nor does she mention my pro bono work on behalf of African-Americans and Muslim Americans.  At best, she allows me to desperately deny such allegations of bigotry, knowing this will sound, well, desperate.  For goodness' sake, even the Jewish ADL accuses this Hasidic Jew of bigotry.  What more evidence do you need?

It is not just the fact that Ms. Elliot could have stated in her own voice quite objectively that I have never written anything that calls for discrimination against blacks, women, or even Muslims qua Muslims.  It is not just that Ms. Elliot might have thought to mention that my "controversial" remarks are "controversial" only among far-left ideologues, progressives, and Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas front groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).  Instead, Ms. Elliot buttresses her characterization of my writings as "controversial" by citing to the ADL.  But, the ADL "report" on my "controversial" writings is no different from CAIR's and the far left's critique: take a few analytical questions out of context and pose them as absurd and bigoted statements and then conclude that David Yerushalmi is a dangerous bigot.  Indeed, the favorite of the progressive critique is to assert with confidence that I am a "white supremacist," a hard feat for any Jew, much less a Hasidic one contentedly married for more than 20 years to a "dark-skinned" Sephardic Jewess of Iranian descent.

And, as for the ADL, Ms. Elliot neglected to mention that most religiously or politically active Jews discount the ADL as little more than a bank account for Abe Foxman, its long-term leader, who has turned the once-respected institution into a progressive mouthpiece.  Indeed, Ms. Elliot, in citing to the ADL as my chief and most legitimate critic, forgot to mention that this "Anti-Defamation" League has actually been sued successfully for, what else, defamation, by a Colorado couple accused of, what else, bigotry.  It took this courageous couple a decade, and legal battles all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they finally forced the ADL to pay the state's largest defamation judgment -- in excess of $10 million!  And, this is the credible group accusing me of bigotry. 

Finally, as noted at the outset, in Ms. Elliot's effort to drum up even more hype around her article, she conducted a 15-minute on-air interview with NPR.  In that interview, Ms. Elliot, to her credit, honestly exposes her own bias.  The anti-sharia movement, she opines, fails to treat sharia honestly.  Sharia, Ms. Elliot tells us, at least as Muslim Americans understand it, has nothing to do with jihad or terrorism or extremism.  Yerushalmi and those like him have "failed" to take into account these nuances among Muslims.  Moreover, the anti-sharia crowd has "conflated" (yes, another favorite word of progressive elites) a radical interpretation of sharia with the mainstream entirely innocuous interpretation.

Little needs to be said here in response beyond the following.  It is Ms. Elliot who has failed to take into account nuance in the form of the nuance of the threat from sharia.  First, if Muslims in Muslim countries overwhelmingly support the imposition of sharia as law to govern an Islamic political order, and if Muslims in Muslim countries overwhelmingly support the imposition of sharia criminal law, such as capital punishment for apostasy and blasphemy, and even assuming Ms. Elliot is correct that Muslim Americans have somehow created a very different Islam from what their brethren in the Muslim world believe, how does she know or even assume that this distinction between American Islam and genuine Muslim Islam will continue?

And, how does Ms. Elliot discredit a peer-reviewed published research project by Prof. Mordechai Kedar of Bar Ilan University and me showing that 82 percent of U.S. mosques promote violent and jihad literature?  She writes: "The study ... has drawn sharp rebuke from Muslim leaders, who question its premise and findings."  Who are these "Muslim leaders" and what are their exact criticisms?  We never learn.  Now, that is a fair and objective critique of a rigorous study that was peer-reviewed and approved for publication by two respected journals: Middle East Quarterly (already published) and Perspectives on Terrorism (soon to be published).

And, even more to Ms. Elliot's substantive analysis of the sharia threat, if Muslim America and American policymakers are afraid to even talk about sharia as a threat, at least as it exists in the Muslim world, how can we know that the Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf oil-financed Salafists, and Iranian-backed mosques and madrassas in this country won't soon make inroads by implanting the Muslim world's understanding of sharia?

Ms. Elliot is silent on this point but certain that the anti-sharia movement is conducting a somewhat unsophisticated, crass, and un-nuanced discussion of sharia as a threat.  It should be enough, according to Ms. Elliot, to simply take the word of the Muslim Brotherhood, the apologists for sharia, and the progressives, all of whom are certain that Islamic terrorism and jihad have nothing to do with Islamic law and all to do with American excesses and immoral alliances in its foreign policy.  Now, that is a nuanced position!

David Yerushalmi is a litigator specializing in complex commercial matters and public policy.  He serves as general counsel to the Center for Security Policy, a national security think-tank in Washington, D.C., founded and directed by Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official.

Update. Andrea Elliott of the New York Times responds:

To the editor:

David Yerushalmi's claim that I misled him while reporting a recent article for The New York Times is false. I told him from the outset that I was working on a story about the anti-shariah movement and wanted to understand its evolution. As my reporting progressed, it became clear to me that he played a crucial role in that movement - a focus of the story that Mr. Yerushalmi and I discussed in detail prior to publication. In none of Mr. Yerushalmi's correspondence with me or the editor of The Times has he challenged the factual accuracy of my story, or claimed that I misrepresented my reporting to him.


Andrea Elliott

David Yerushalmi responds:

First, my point in the AT essay is that Ms. Elliot and I had agreed that I was merely background for a story on the "movement." This was the written (emails) condition to set up the lunch interview that launched this story. Ms. Elliot will recall that I continued to tell her that my willingness to have our long lunch interview was that I was not the point of the story (for good or bad). For weeks, she assured me the story was about the "movement, not you." Granted, in time she said, "you are certainly part of that story," which later became a "central part of that story" and of course by the closing weeks "the story." So as to the journalistic deception, which I said was simply a very good use of typical journalistic tradecraft, something I commented upon to her directly during the process by the way, that, it would seem to me, should be a laudatory aspect of my essay-from a journalistic perspective. As a journalist working for the New York Times, she should be proud of that tactic.

I would also ask Ms. Elliot to read my essay carefully. I didn't say she deceived me throughout the three+ months she worked on the story. Indeed, I noted in the essay specifically that in our first face to face lunch interview she had telegraphed her true intentions by her questioning. I noted that she was focusing too much on personalities, including me. I also explained that I discussed this ploy with my colleagues and we took the conscious decision early on to continue with the process. As it turns out, notwithstanding her representations at the early stages, she wrote what most people describe as a "profile" of me rather than of the "movement." The movement, as substantive argument, in fact, gets short shrift.

Factually, her narrative that I have somehow directed this national movement is simply false. As I told her rather honestly and consistently throughout, to characterize my influence over a national grass roots movement in the way she has is simply counterfactual, counterintuitive, and counterproductive. This leads to another aspect of my critique. Did she mean to flush out the substantive arguments of sharia, which she did little of, or to cast the anti-sharia movement as the sinister workings of a "fringe" Jew, Hasidic no less? The Leftists and Muslim Brotherhood types who have commented on the story understand it in the sinister fashion. My colleagues and friends understand her narrative this way as well even as they know it to be false.

Honestly, I was not so quick to read this into her conscious motives, mostly because I like her as a person, but was fully convinced otherwise after listening to her NPR interview. In that interview, Ms. Elliot laid bare her "opinions" which made clear the sinister narrative was the narrative she intended to tell.

Now, as to the more serious charges in my essay. As I've communicated to her by email post-publication, I do not believe the piece was what is typically termed a "hit job," mostly though, as I've indicated, because I like her so much as a person (e.g., unlike MotherJones, which explicitly labeled me a "white supremacist"). And, given the rather dubious standards of the Times, I don't believe the piece was bad. Indeed, as I wrote in the AT essay, given our purposes to have a MSM article discuss sharia in any way other than puffery would be worth the risks inherent to Times reporting on these matters. And, I will say on the record, Ms. Elliot probably gave the anti-sharia movement a fairer treatment that it might have received from any other Times reporter.

Having said that, Ms. Elliot's use of language, structure, and "experts" in the form of academics and "Muslim leaders" juxtaposed against our "unschooled" arguments set out in caricature, was as I've indicated, just another way for a journalist to write a very critical oped in the voice of others. Ms. Elliot's NPR interview made that clear and was what motivated me to write the essay for AT. Otherwise, I'd likely have left well enough alone. But  she confirmed her rather biased opinion drove her "fact-based" reporting; yet, her article was not honest or transparent about her use of editorializing through the voices of others.

Finally, Ms. Elliot's use of the ADL "report," a transparently juvenile work product and probably written by a juvenile, and her plucking challenging queries appearing in my essays out of context were both meant to achieve her goal of taking a one-time "fringe" character (her description of me on NPR) and turning him into a "marginalized" character. Indeed, her effort in this regard simply did what the left-wing and Muslim Brotherhood types had done before her, but on a much more important stage. And, as I told her before the publication, to do this and then just to leave me alone with my own denial would be to string me up on the bigot's gallows.  Just as Ms. Elliot opined on sharia phantoms, she owed it to me and more to her readers to explain in her own voice that my writings do not call for discrimination in any form or fashion.  She did not do that but left my reputation, which was only "controversial" among the hard Left and Muslim Brotherhood types, to be trashed and ridiculed as a bigot on the front pages of the New York Times.

Yes, so one might say she did not state a fact wrong per se, but there is an important aspect ethically (journalistically), morally, and even in many areas of the law about one's duty to represent facts accurately. That something is the duty not to omit a material fact. While you have no duty in the first instance to say anything good or correct about me, once your decide to publish a 2000+ word essay that suggests I am a bigot, you most certainly do have an affirmative duty to make that record clear. You did not. You failed to mention in your own voice that I had fought for African Americans and Muslims pro bono. You failed to mention that I have written rebuttal essays, long essays, responding to these attacks and saying explicitly that the quotes taken out of context mean in most instances the exact opposite of bigotry. That you mentioned none of this, while relying on the ADL, even after I pointed out to you that the ADL itself had been sued in historic terms for defamation for calling someone else a bigot, is factually inaccurate. It is the omission of material facts.

So, yes. I would say to Ms. Elliot, you got the facts wrong. And, just so you might know, I forgive you but only because I like you as a person. But, for no other.

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