The Boston Globe vs. Free Speech
A troubled young man plans to go on a shooting rampage at a local mall. A devoted fan of other mass murderers, he gets pleasure watching videos of cruel and graphic violence: actual beheadings, disembowelments, maimings. He hates his neighbors and wishes for their deaths. He's been taught to hate by religious extremists who dominate his community while intimidating their opponents into silence. The FBI catches him before he can go through with his plan to machine gun shoppers at the mall, though the Bureau ignores the people who indoctrinated him. The extremists, meanwhile, are demanding that the would-be murderer be released. They teach their children that he is a hero, and that those who stopped him from slaughtering innocent people are the true villains. A local newspaper journalist knows all this but for motives unknown, she refuses to report this story.
This is not a fictional account. On November 10, 2010, we met with Boston Globe's religion reporter Lisa Wangsness and briefed her for over two hours on a troubling story. A year before, the FBI had arrested Tarek Mehanna, an Islamic extremist from Sudbury, Massachusetts whom it accused of providing material support to Al Qaeda and plotting a shooting spree at the Emerald Square Mall in North Attleboro, MA. In intercepted conversations, Mehanna celebrated the 9/11 hijackers as heroes. According to the indictment, "Mehanna and his coconspirators, who shared videos and took real pleasure in the deaths of American servicemen, seemed to delight in the most horrific atrocities." Watching Iraqi terrorists tearing open a dead U.S. Marine's rib cage and setting it on fire with gasoline, Mehanna gloated: "heh yeah... nice juicy BBQ... Texas BBQ is the way to go." Trial documents show that Mehanna and his co-conspirators referred to themselves as the American wing of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Mehanna was convicted on all charges last year and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
We also shared with the Globe's reporter evidence of an intense campaign by local Islamic extremists to pressure the Justice Department to release Mehanna back into the community that he had planned to attack. The extremists insisted that the twisted mind revealed in FBI-recorded conversations was actually a gentle soul who loved children and playing with his cat. Claiming that Mehanna's arrest was nothing but a witch hunt by the FBI, which they accused of hating Muslims, they incited their followers against the U.S. government by painting the ghoulish would-be killer as the victim.
We showed Ms. Wangsness that well-known religious leaders with connections to Massachusetts political and civic leadership were involved in this campaign. Among them was Imam Abdullah Faaruuq, then the Muslim Chaplain at Northeastern University and a frequent preacher at the largest mosque in the Northeast, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. (Faaruuq was dismissed from his position at Northeastern after we exposed his actions in support of Mehanna and other convicted terrorists.) Her own newspaper reported that another respected local Muslim leader supporting Tarek Mehanna was a medical doctor named Abdul Cader Asmal, co-chairman of communications for the Islamic Council of New England. In 2011, Dr. Asmal was stripped of his medical license by disciplinary action from the Massachusetts Board of Medicine.
At our meeting with Ms. Wangsness, we traced for her a timeline of Mehanna's trajectory from a Sudbury, MA teenage son of Egyptian immigrants to a budding Al Qaeda terrorist. Mehanna had been radicalized at the Islamic Center of Worcester and the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, Massachusetts. We showed her documents revealing that these mosques were led by imams who happened to be the brothers of one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, Hafiz Saeed. Saeed, who had visited the Boston area when Mehanna was 12, is the Pakistani mastermind of one of the world's deadliest mass mall shootings: the 2008 Mumbai Massacre. According to the Times of India, his Massachusetts-based brothers raised money and recruited members for his terrorist group in the Bay State.
Ms. Wangsness learned how the Islamic Center of Worcester, in particular, actively engages in youth indoctrination. During Mehanna's trial, the mosque's elementary schoolchildren were tasked with drawing "Free Tarek Mehanna" posters and then carted off to the Federal Court building in Boston to chant anti-American slogans.
We shared with Ms. Wangsness interviews with moderate Muslims who reached out to us asking for help in fighting the extremists who had hijacked their community and are brainwashing their children. We showed her a vicious and threatening letter that local extremist leader Nabeel Khudairi sent to a moderate Muslim who dared challenge the extremists in his mosque.
She looked at all our evidence, thanked us politely, and reported nothing. Now perhaps we can understand why.
On January 30, 2013, Wangsness spent part of the day with Abdul Cader Asmal -- the disgraced medical doctor and supporter of Tarek Mehanna; with officials from the Islamic Center of Worcester -- which was the incubator for Mehanna's hatred and still may be for dozens of young children; and with Nabeel Khudairi -- the intimidator of moderate Muslims. Their goal, according to leaked emails, was to pressure the Catholic Diocese of Worcester to cancel a talk by Robert Spencer, a well-known critic of Islamic doctrine, especially its treatment of non-believers, whom they falsely accused of hating Muslims.
They succeeded. The Worcester Diocese cancelled Spencer's talk without the courtesy of informing him directly. He had to learn about it from Wangsness, who reached out to him for comment in a series of emails whose line of questioning followed the "have you stopped beating your wife?" formula. The article she published in the next day's Boston Globe ("Catholic event cancels talk by Islam critic") was a foregone conclusion: Spencer was portrayed as a villain, while Wangsness's extremist associates were made to look like sympathetic victims. Though the article quoted Abdul Cader Asmal positively as a doctor, it made no mention of his permanent removal from practice through disciplinary action.
Robert Spencer is a controversial author and speaker, yet in some ways, his views on Islam tend to be more scholarly than many of the atheist critics of Christianity, who, without much fuss, populate American universities and cultural institutions. Spencer forcefully makes the point that, as with all religions, adherents range widely -- from the absolute literalists to the largely secular "cultural" Muslims. Spencer says he is not against Muslims, but against the political aspect of Islam, which demands that its followers act -- violently if necessary -- to subjugate infidels and establish a theocracy.
Disagreeing with Spencer is simply not a valid reason to prevent people from hearing his arguments and his warnings. A pluralistic and open society must always favor the free exchange of all ideas to the intolerant suppression of dissent. It is sadly ironic, though no longer surprising, that a member of the press would join Islamist extremists in trying to suppress free speech, and -- in Wangsness' case -- go as far asto effectively censor information related to extremist activities.
Why would Ms.Wangsness behave this way? Surely she doesn't share the radical Islamic ideological hatred toward America espoused by the people she's protecting. Much more likely, she believes in the political dogma adopted by the 'social justice'-seeking media and civic elites. It is based on the false narrative that American Muslims constitute a "vulnerable minority," which deserves protection from criticism -- even if such protection involves the suppression of facts and the repression of critics. Sadly, too many journalists and political leaders collaborate with this crusade against the truth, and too many newspapers make it a matter of editorial policy. Journalists like Lisa Wangsness of the Boston Globe have largely become instruments of a truly illiberal orthodoxy. Its fetishes and myths -- that Western culture is racist, that Islam is the religion of peace, that Muslims are always victims, and that anyone who says otherwise must be denounced and silenced -- can never be questioned. It is through this dogmatism that the radical Islamists have won from the media and political elites a special set of protections.
Commenting on the infamous YouTube video criticizing Islam's prophet Mohammed, which resulted in Muslim mobs rioting and killing around the world, President Obama expressed a strange view on the concept of dissent in a free society. He said: "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." With this statement, Obama attacked the right to criticize Islam, and he was in effect targeting not only YouTube provocateurs, but also people like Robert Spencer.
Not enough significance has been paid to the implications of the president's bizarre pronouncement. Obama left unsaid what he thinks should be done with those who criticize Islam in order to ensure that "the future must not belong" to them. However, the subsequent arrest of the producer of the offending YouTube video on charges that posting the video violated his probation, speaks louder than words. Will Robert Spencer and other authors and scholars who find sufficient reason to criticize any aspect of Islam have to worry about special scrutiny that could lead to prosecution or face other, more subtle, government sanctions?
Amazingly, such threats to freedom of expression seem not to bother those who otherwise make criticism of those in power the key element of their profession. This is not a new phenomenon. In his essays, "Writers and Leviathan" and "The Prevention of Literature," George Orwell seems to speak from the grave directly to Lisa Wangsness and journalists like her:
Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose... To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer... If you possess information that conflicts with the prevailing orthodoxy you are expected either to distort it or to keep quiet about it... Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought.
A modern literary intellectual lives and writes in constant dread -- not, indeed, of public opinion in the wider sense, but of public opinion within his own group. As a rule, luckily, there is more than one group, but also at any given moment there is a dominant orthodoxy, to offend against which needs a thick skin... To accept an orthodoxy is always to inherit unresolved contradictions... In every such case there is a conclusion which is perfectly plain but which can only be drawn if one is privately disloyal to the official ideology. The normal response is to push the question, unanswered, into a corner of one's mind, and then continue repeating contradictory catchwords.
Ms. Wangsness has redefined the role of the journalist from providing true information to promoting a group's dominant orthodoxy, which in this case also requires blacklisting, silencing, and employing neo-McCarthyism against those who violate its taboos. The ultimate victims here are the people of New England, who are kept ignorant of the potential dangers in their community. Welcome to the New Journalism -- serving private ideology against the public interest.
The writers are, respectively, Research Director and President of Americans for Peace and Tolerance (www.peaceandtolerance.org)