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Robert George’s Moral Cowardice on Islamophobia

April 11, 2012, 10:00 am | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Since it was revealed last fall that Robert George sits on the board of a conservative foundation that funds some of the worst anti-Islam extremists, the prominent Princeton professor has remained silent on the issue. Even when asked directly, he refused to discuss the subject.

Monday, his colleague Jennifer Bryson of the Witherspoon Institute tried to defend him. Unfortunately her attempt comes up short.

Bryson starts by conceding that the anti-Islam organizations in question are “in [her] view, misguided” before moving on. But let’s be clear, the people we’re talking about are indefensibly hateful. They describe Muslims as “Islamic Nazis,” tell lies about the President’s faith, and promote elaborate conspiracy theories about secret Muslim infiltration of the United States government and civil society. They also bear some responsibility for the rise in attacks on the religious freedom of Muslims in the last few years. And their work is being funded to the tune of over $4 million dollars by the board on which Robert George sits.

Bryson goes on to allege that critics are charging George with “being anti-Muslim” or being “hostile to Islam” and rebuts these charges with a litany of George’s statements criticizing anti-Islam bigotry. I might have missed something, but none of the posts I’ve written or read on this subject have said any such thing. In fact, I’ve made a point to laud these very statements and suggested his otherwise positive record on this issue is exactly what makes his place on the Bradley Foundation board so disappointing.

After twelve paragraphs refuting this straw man, Bryson finally gets to the fundamental moral conflict at stake, relaying George’s defense:

Yet what about George’s position on the Bradley Foundation board? Is it inconsistent with his advocacy of the rights of Muslims and his work for Christian-Muslim cooperation? The Bradley Board discussions are confidential and, says George, “what I have to say about Bradley grants and grantees I will say to them and my colleagues on the Bradley board.”

But this of course is a non-answer. Under the guise of confidentiality, George refuses to say what (if anything) he says to the board about the Bradley Foundation’s record of funding the Islamophobia industry. Did he show them the disgusting records of the people they’re funding? Was there a fight about this decision? Even if he protested and voted no, is he embarrassed that his colleagues are contributing to the same religious bigotry he opposes in other contexts? We don’t know any of this, because George won’t say.

Bryson, however, jumps to conclusions:

Frankly I am glad that he is part of the Bradley Board. He can have more influence by participating inside than by protesting from outside, and having so prominent a defender of Muslim rights, and of Islam as a faith, in such a visible place of honor and influence in the conservative movement sends a clear message to other conservatives that they need not, and should not, view Islam with contempt or regard their Muslim fellow citizens with suspicion.

If George’s strategy is to influence the board from within, he’s failing spectacularly. The foundation has been giving money to these extremists since 2001. George’s election to the board in 2006 failed to do anything to stop the flow of funds — publicly available annual reports through 2010 show that grants have been awarded in every year since.

Moreover, Bryson has her cause and effect wrong. George is not a prominent conservative leader because he is on the board, his stature comes from his other work and lends the board credibility and visibility. Given that practically no one knew about this situation until a few months ago, can Bryson really argue with a straight face that George’s secret, silent protest of an unknown issue has “sent a clear message” about religious tolerance to his fellow conservatives?

Of course not. George’s silent participation does the exact opposite, sending the message that these organizations are credible and worthy of funding.

What if the groups in question weren’t anti-Islam extremists, but active racists? Would George act the same way if the Bradley Foundation were funding the KKK? Would being a silent advocate for African Americans be morally sufficient? Would conservatives accept George’s “behind the scenes advocate” defense?

Imagine, though, what kind of message George could send by making public his vociferous opposition to his colleagues’ decision and resigning from the board in protest. Now that would be a moral example that might inspire fellow conservatives to refuse to sit by silently while xenophobic extremists hijack their movement.

But instead, George appears content to whistle past the graveyard. That’s certainly a moral and strategic choice he has a right to make. But it’s a choice that deserves to be made public, especially for someone recently appointed to a prominent position defending religious liberty around the globe. And he and his allies shouldn’t be surprised if others determine that his association with anti-Muslim groups disqualifies him from such an important and prestigious role.

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