Van Was Right, So Are We
My grandfather Edward Bulkeley Van Zile was a zealous anti-Communist. He couldn’t understand why anyone would downplay the threat of Communism. He experienced the efforts American church leaders to make nice with Communist leaders as a betrayal of the country he had served during World War I and which had elicited the sacrifice of his oldest son during World War II.
His anger at the people who wanted to appease – and not stand in opposition to – Communism and its supporters is evident in letters he sent to New Hampshire’s Manchester Union Leader. In one instance, he railed against clergymen who met with leaders of Communist China over the objections of the U.S. State Department.
Van, as he was called, lost his job as advertising manager at Yankee magazine in part because of his zealous anti-Communism. He had a difficult time getting along with people. Part of the problem was his anger at people who didn’t feel the threat of Communism as viscerally as he did. He was a vessel of anti-Communist outrage and he paid the price.
As a result of his cantankerous ways, Robb Sagendorf, Yankee’s publisher, fired him. The letter Sagendorf wrote to my grandfather afterwards was pretty moving. Sagendorf was distraught over having to fire his friend and employee, but there was no way he was hiring Van back, despite pleas from other employees at Yankee to do so.
He was too abrasive; too much of a curmudgeon.
Looking through the scrapbooks and correspondence that document my grandfather’s life, I see a lot of myself in him. The similarity struck pretty close to the bone a few months ago when I read through one scrapbook and saw an entry in which he jokingly asked if the Roman Catholic Church would take him if he left the Episcopal Church over its appeasing tendencies.
A few years ago I left the United Church of Christ and became a Roman Catholic in part because of the dishonest story the UCC’s leaders, peace activists and General Synod told about the Arab-Israeli conflict. These institutions, like those of other mainline denominations, had offered a distorted view of the Arab-Israeli conflict and had condoned some ugly Jew-baiting by so-called peacemakers from the Middle East.
And to add salt to the wound, the denomination did not speak up forcefully about the oppression of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. In sum, UCC peace activists and denominational officials demonized Zionism, Israel and its supporters, but remained silent about Islamism and the misdeeds of its adherents.
Like my grandfather, I took the sins of my church leaders as a personal betrayal and wrote about it. My grandfather joked about leaving his church and of becoming a Catholic. I actually did it.
The echoes are unmistakable.
Because of my familial connection to anti-Communism, I recently read a book that was published in 1998 – Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism by Richard Gid Powers. This book was published 15 years ago but provides startling insight into the events of our times.
Again, the echoes are unmistakable.
First off, the two movements were (or are) right. Communism destroyed millions of peoples’ lives in Asia and Eastern Europe, just as Islamism is destroying peoples’ lives in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. People who embrace these ideologies lead the societies they control into perdition.
Both movements were (or are) opposed by people who refuse(d) to acknowledge the threat of totalitarianism. Just as significant numbers of intellectuals, journalists and clergy turned a blind eye to the destructiveness of Communism, another generation of intellectuals is unwilling to confront the destructiveness of shariah law. For the anti-anti- Communists and their ideological inheritors (the anti-anti-Islamists) those who oppose totalitarianism represent a greater threat than totalitarianism itself.
The anti-anti-Islamists promote an obsession with Israel and in some instances, traffic in classical tropes of anti-Semitism to dramatize their story.
They write books that obscure the truth about the legacy left by Islam’s founder, Mohammed.
They downplay or ignore the suffering endured by women in Muslim majority countries.
They ignore the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities who are suffering terrible acts of violence at the hand of Islamists who invoke the teachings and actions of Mohammed and his companions to justify their acts of violence and oppression.
To make matters worse, they portray the people who insist on talking about these things as Philistines by calling them bigots and Islamophobes.
The goal of these epithets is to stifle discussion about the most pressing question of our time: How are we going to deal with the desire of Islamists who seek to mimic Mohammed’s legacy and follow his teachings to the letter in the modern world?
The desire to ignore this question and leave it for the next generation to contend with is understandable. It’s rooted in human nature. It’s still wrong.
The similarities don’t stop there. Just as J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy undermined the credibility of anti-Communism as a movement, some anti-Islamist activists behave in ways that undermine their cause.
They badmouth and dismiss reform-minded Muslims who are struggling to confront the anti-Semitism of their co-religionists.
Sometimes they make allegations about anti-Israel activists that are not true.
And some groups use a legitimate concern over Islamism as justification for their own extremist politics. The point of fighting against Islamism is to prevent the spread of fascism, not foster it.
All these behaviors give people an excuse to ignore the threats anti-Islamists are legitimately trying to warn people about.
But as we recount the sins of some anti-Islamists, we have to admit that as a whole, the movement is right about Islamism, just as the anti-Communists in the 20th century were right about Communism and just as 19th century abolitionists were right about slavery.
Shariah is an evil system of oppression that demands outrage – just as slavery and Communist oppression demanded outrage.
The greatest danger facing afflicting anti-Islamists is the same one that afflicted my grandfather – hopelessness. He lacked faith in his fellow citizens to see the truth and act on the truth about Communism.
I wish my grandfather, that vessel of anti-Communist outrage, had somehow lived long enough to see the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Van had his demons, but history proved him right.
One way or another, it will prove the anti-Islamists right as well.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). His opinions are his own.