Unattributed Conspiracies

The Tribune has this problem. A lot of its Jewish readers think it skews its coverage and editorial comment on the Middle East in favor of the Palestinians. So they read whatever the Tribune has to say about Muslims and Jews carefully and critically.

An August 24 story by religion reporter Geneive Abdo was no exception. It began, “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has revoked a visa granted to Tariq Ramadan, a renowned Islamic scholar who is accused by some Jewish groups of being a Muslim extremist, effectively barring him from a teaching post he was to begin this week at the University of Notre Dame.”

The important news is exactly what Abdo said it was: our fretful government had decided to protect us from a Muslim intellectual who would have brought controversial ideas to an American classroom. But some Jewish readers noticed a loose piece of string in that lead and began to pull on it.

Those “Jewish groups”–the ones who accused Ramadan of being an extremist, the ones whose criticism presumably influenced Homeland Security to bar him from our shores–who were they? To whom did they speak in Washington?

Readers never found out.

Ramadan, a Swiss citizen who was described by Abdo as a “rising academic star in Europe who is regarded by Islamic scholars and experts as a Muslim moderate,” had been appointed to teach Islamic philosophy and ethics at Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. But Homeland Security, which gave him a visa last February, changed its mind in July–after he’d shipped his possessions to South Bend. Abdo couldn’t say why, but she reported that under the Patriot Act, visas can be denied visitors connected to organizations or political activities that support terrorism.

John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University, protested the decision. Abdo wrote that Esposito “and other scholars said they suspected the government’s decision to bar Ramadan could have been influenced by some Jewish groups that have waged a campaign against scholars and public intellectuals whose views on Islam and the Middle East conflict with their own.”

That sentence is written so cautiously it almost nullifies itself. Nobody knows, but some scholars “suspected.” Not that the government was influenced, but that it “could have been.” By whom? By “some Jewish groups.” Would readers at some point be told who “some Jewish groups” might be? Here’s the best Abdo could do: “For example, Web sites such as Campus Watch, run by pro-Israel activist Daniel Pipes, seek to expose professors who allegedly hold anti-Israel views.”

Pipes is Jewish, but Campus Watch isn’t a Jewish group per se. It’s basically a Web site that calls out scholars it disputes but asserts that it “supports the unencumbered freedom of speech of all scholars [and] takes no position on individual academic appointments.” And Campus Watch was the only example given. Abdo went on to say that “some Jewish groups in France have called Ramadan an anti-Semite, and pro-Israel activists in the United States have contended he is connected to Al Qaeda.” But “some Jewish groups” in France, like the ones in the States, went unidentified, as did the “pro-Israel activists.”

Most readers probably don’t even notice the repeated use of a nebulous phrase like “some Jewish groups,” but it’s the kind of tic that drives readers who already resent the Tribune up the wall.

A spokesman for Notre Dame told me the university heard from “a few individuals” protesting Ramadan’s appointment, “some of whom identified themselves as Jewish. To my knowledge, there was no criticism by a particular group.” Nor was Notre Dame ever contacted directly by Pipes.

Abdo wrote that Pipes told her that “he did not know of any Jewish groups in the United States that had filed a complaint about Ramadan with the federal government.” But he said, “I do know that elements in France have told the U.S. government that he is not suitable for the position.” Pipes didn’t say these were Jewish elements, and maybe they weren’t.

Father John Pawlikowski, director of Catholic-Jewish studies at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park, was lecturing in France when Ramadan’s appointment was announced. “A group of Catholic moderates raised the issue quite strongly with me,” he tells me. “They wanted to know why Notre Dame was so naive as to hire Tariq Ramadan, who they claimed gives quite inflammatory talks to poor Muslims in the poverty-stricken suburbs of Paris.”

Pawlikowski thought Abdo’s article left readers with the impression that the revocation of Ramadan’s visa “was entirely due to a certain Jewish cabal headed by Daniel Pipes”–though she certainly didn’t write that. Pawlikowski didn’t buy it. “I’m not discounting his influence in this matter,” he told me, “but I do say there’s a wider group that at least has expressed some concern about Ramadan. They are people I cannot dismiss very easily because they are not right-wing anti-Muslim fanatics. And they are Catholic. Essentially, they’re people connected and on the editorial board of a Catholic-related newsweekly in Paris called La Vie, which has been taken over by Le Monde. These are respected journalists, and they actually phoned the University of Notre Dame to raise their concerns and were pretty much brushed off.”

The day Abdo’s article ran I heard from a frequent Jewish correspondent who watches the Tribune like a hawk. “Sloppy, sloppy journalism on a very sensitive subject matter,” his e-mail said. “‘Jews Bar Muslim Scholar’ is the article’s take-away, which will sure sound great in our ever-growing conspiracy-filled world.”

I called Emily Soloff, a former journalist and Medill instructor who’s now executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Chicago. “It was very disappointing,” she said. “In an article that touches on some really important topics–like academic freedom, how American universities vet their foreign faculty, and the use of the Patriot Act–to see the Tribune start the article with the tired old canard that somehow it’s Jewish influence.” She laughed.

“And then the only quote unquote Jewish group that is brought to bear is Campus Watch, and even [Pipes] says he doesn’t know if it’s Jewish pressure. . . . There are now Muslim Web sites that have picked it up and carried it. I got a call yesterday from a Muslim friend who wanted to know if the AJC was one of the groups. Which is just outrageous.”

Soloff told me she didn’t know of any Jewish groups that lobbied to keep Ramadan out of the country. I asked Abdo by e-mail for more information. “I do not wish to be interviewed for your article,” she replied. “In other words, I have declined comment. Good luck with your story.”

The Tribune’s coverage of the Ramadan controversy didn’t end with Abdo’s article. She wrote a follow-up two days later containing references to opposition to Ramadan from “some Jewish groups” (none was named), from “some Jewish leaders” (an American Jewish Committee official in New York was the one example), and to “some Jewish activists” (Pipes). When the usual suspects are convened, Pipes is virtually a committee of one.

On August 29 the Tribune carried an essay by Pipes denouncing Ramadan. Two days later it published Ramadan’s reply and the editorial page weighed in. “Some critics”–a dim echo of “some Jewish groups,” “some Jewish leaders,” and “some Jewish activists”–“regard him as an anti-Semitic apologist for extremism,” said the Tribune. “Among them is Daniel Pipes.”

The Tribune then defended Ramadan. “Nothing that has come to light so far suggests that Ramadan endorses terrorism,” the editorial said, and even if he does, that’s not illegal. “Ramadan lacks the protection of the 1st Amendment, but that doesn’t justify keeping him out merely because someone finds his beliefs obnoxious.” The Tribune said Homeland Security owes Notre Dame an explanation.

News Bite

An anonymous caller tells me staffers at the Daily Herald were shamed by a recent edict that banished a play from the paper’s universe. The word went out on August 24 in a memo from Ernie Schweit, editor of the Friday Time Out! section, to his staff: “Please pull the following out of any and all listings, calendars, etc. effective right away. And make sure it’s purged from the data base. . . . Puppetry of the Penis, Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway: Two naked guys twist and contort their genitals etc.”

Schweit wouldn’t discuss the memo with me and said he couldn’t give me the name of someone who might. Uncharacteristically, Herald editor John Lampinen also refused to comment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Antoine Serra/In Visu/Corbis.