The New York Times didn’t know or didn’t care that one of its new high-profile “contributing opinion writers” has long displayed a relentless hostility to Israel and posited startling conspiracy theories about “Zionist” power.
The revelations about the best-selling Egyptian novelist and activist Alaa Al Aswany, as highlighted in news reports of recent days, raise the perennial question of whether any newspaper should give space to someone – no matter his or her professional achievements – who promotes bigoted or irrational views.
The revelations raise a disturbing question as well: whether public figures can promote views about Israel and Zionism that they could never promote about another people or cause and still maintain their good name.
That, at this writing, Aswany retains his perch at the Times – the newspaper hasn’t felt compelled to part ways with its new literary rock star – says something profoundly troubling about both its, and our, collective tolerance for public ugliness.
Let’s give Aswany his due. His 2002 novel, "The Yacoubian Building," has sold over a million copies around the globe and was the Arab world’s best-selling novel for more than five years, the Times boasts in its biographical sketch, adding that “[h]is work has been translated into more than 30 languages, and published in more than 100 countries.” He has also received many international awards.
Aswany’s a leading political figure as well, and he helped fuel the demonstrations that led to Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in early 2011.
So far, so good.
But, as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Eric Trager wrote in The New Republic, Aswany also has said on Egyptian TV that a “massive Zionist organization rules America,” which explains why “Obama is not able to go against Israel’s desires.” In addition, Aswany repeatedly argued over the last year that “the United States supports the Muslim Brotherhood to reassure Israel.”
Aswany is on Twitter, and his tweets are revealing. After Egypt’s military overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood-affiliated president, Aswany tweeted, “Obama is worried because Israel is worried.” After Sen. John McCain prodded Egypt’s military and the Brotherhood to negotiate, Aswany tweeted, “The Zionist John McCain, one of the biggest defenders of Israel, threatens Egypt if it does not release “[Brotherhood leader Khairat Al-] Shater immediately. The only explanation is that Brotherhood rule is in the interest of Israel.”
After reading such rants, you can’t help but ponder the same question that Trager aired: By what theory of regional politics is the Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt a good thing for the Jewish state on its border?
The Brotherhood, which seeks religious rule to replace secular governance, has never disavowed its original motto: “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Quran is our law, Jihad is our way; and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” Its officials publicly incite genocide against Jews, and a 2011 Brotherhood rally in Egypt included calls to “one day kill all the Jews.”
Aswany, Trager tells us, has two answers to the seeming contradiction:
First, he tweeted, “Zionist support for the Brotherhood prevents Hamas [the Brotherhood’s terrorist offshoot that rules Gaza] from attacking Israel.” That’s nonsense, of course, as Hamas continually repeats its genocidal hopes for the Jewish state and launches rockets into Israel whenever opportunities arise.
Second, Aswany argues, Israel seeks a weak Egypt so it can dominate the region and the Brotherhood’s weak performance leaves Egypt “underdeveloped and subordinate.” That’s nonsense, too, for the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, which truly strengthened Israel’s regional position, was far more secure under Mubarak than it was under Morsi.
Moreover, Aswany’s fixation on all things Israel predates Egypt’s current political turmoil.
In 2010, he refused to let the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information publish "The Yacoubian Building," which by then was in 19 languages, in Hebrew, The Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman reported. Later, he threatened to give any royalties from a Hebrew translation to Hamas. When the organization translated it anyway and made it available for download for a limited time, Aswany said he would complain to the International Publishers Association.
Of Aswany’s new spot at the Times, the Hudson Institute’s Research Fellow, Samuel Tadros, told Goodman: “It’s quite problematic because [the column] gives him a place where he can spread more of his lunacies,” said Tadros. “There’s always the argument of ‘Who cares, the guy believes [some] crazy stuff, so what?’ But it’s that crazy stuff that then gets spread among the Western journalists, among Western readership.”
Did the Times know about Aswany’s ugly views beforehand? Does it care now?
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.” Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.