Daniel Pipes: Is the country's most controversial Middle East scholar mellowing?

Historians in the News

[Sadanand Dhume is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. He has finished a book about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia.]

The first thing that strikes you about Daniel Pipes is his size. He's six feet, four inches tall, with a slight stoop and a wingspan that would send a piano teacher into rapture. The second remarkable thing about Pipes is something you notice only after he has led you into his book-lined corner office at the Middle East Forum, the Center City think tank he's run for the past 16 years, a place where the stray workplace embellishments include a journalism award from the Zionist Organization of America and a small picture of himself towering over Margaret Thatcher: It's his voice, a carefully modulated hush that forces you to glance anxiously at your tape recorder with a silent prayer.

The gentle demeanor is not what you'd expect of Pipes. Over the years, from his perch at the MEF and in countless books, newspaper op-eds, and appearances on talking-head TV shows, he has become an archetype of the hard-hearted ideologue, anchoring the most conservative pole in the debate over the Middle East, Islam, and terrorism. He has called for religious profiling of Muslims in America, and described the global battle with Islamists—those Muslims who strive for a society governed by their interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law—as "a cosmic battle over the future course of human experience." His views on the Israel-Palestine peace process are, in the words of the writer Christopher Hitchens, "somewhat to the right of Ariel Sharon." Once, on the television show Politically Incorrect, actor Alec Baldwin turned to Pipes and declared, "You seem to be in support of every crypto-fascist idea."

On this afternoon in early October, Pipes has just finished hammering out a piece for the New York Sun, where he has a regular column, concerning a group of Muslim taxi drivers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport who have demanded the right to refuse to pick up passengers carrying alcohol. Instead of simply canceling the drivers' licenses or asking them to forfeit booze-laden fares, airport authorities are considering a compromise: Drivers will be allowed to place an extra light on their roofs signaling their willingness to ferry the offending cargo. "From the airport point of view, this is completely satisfactory," explains Pipes. "Passengers are not stranded. Taxi drivers are content. But from the larger point of view, this has incredible implications: The sharia is now in effect in Minneapolis airport with two different lights. … Think of all the people the drivers might not want to take: Hindus, homosexuals, unmarried couples. … I mean, where does one stop?"

The extended riff is delivered in a tone that blends muted outrage with boyish infectiousness, and for a moment it dusts Pipes, 57, with the manner of an adolescent. It also captures the Pipesian method: the placement of the seemingly trivial in a broader political context, the effortless accretion of detail building up toward a crescendo, the conclusion that teeters on the edge of hyperbole and yet appears perfectly logical. By the time he's finished, you may be forgiven for fretting that the Twin Cities are on their way to resembling Tehran.

Such rhetorical skill is one of the reasons why Pipes—the director of a little-known think tank and author of 14 books that few in the general public will ever read—has managed to occupy an almost mythic space on the ideological plane where people are paid to argue over post-9/11 foreign policy and national security, someone whose bare-knuckled approach to radical Islam delights fans and enrages foes from Peoria to Pakistan. When the Mohammed cartoons roiled much of the world last year, the leftist newsletter CounterPunch went so far as to lay some of the responsibility for a Danish paper commissioning the cartoons at Pipes's door. When a British Muslim organization gave out its "Islamophobe of the Year" award, he was among the contenders. (Other Americans short-listed have included George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice.) His personal website, danielpipes.org, attracts three million visitors a year, according to Pipes.

Yet, five years after 9/11, five years after he became a fixture on Fox News and a familiar face on CNN, Pipes is confronting a new challenge. While his views on radical Islam have changed little since he became a member of the prime-time pundit class, the debate over Islam in this country has changed dramatically. And though Pipes continues to joust with his old adversaries on the left—from academics to the media to mainline churches—he now also worries about a view of Islam born of the right, one that sees the religion itself, rather the radical ideology it spawned, as inherently hostile to Western ideals. For the first time, the man who has long been among the world's most polarizing thinkers finds himself in an unfamiliar role—urging restraint.

Pipes employs a catchphrase that captures, if it doesn't adequately explain, his worldview: "Radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution." According to Pipes, there's a distinct difference between Islam the religion and Islamism the ideology. The former, says Pipes, is a centuries-old faith for which he has always professed respect. But the latter, he says, is a modern set of beliefs whose adherents seek to create societies based on a political, social and legal system—the sharia—that he sees as misanthropic, misogynist, anti-modern, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and terroristic, among a long list of other unpleasant things.

In 2007, this doesn't sound particularly radical. Even President Bush has drawn lines between Islam and what he called "Islamofacism." But Pipes's standing—among those who both love and loathe him—stems from the fact that he talked about (or, some would say, was obsessed by) radical Muslims long before they were a topic most people ever considered.

Pipes came to the subject in college. Growing up in Boston, the oldest child of Polish Jews who had fled Europe on the outbreak of WWII, he had wanted to be a mathematician, but after his sophomore year at Harvard—where his father Richard taught Russian history- Pipes realized he was in over his head. Instead he decided to study Islamic history, an interest sparked by summer trips to the Sahara and the Sinai. His undergraduate experience seared itself on Pipes in another way as well. He began his freshman year more or less apolitical, but graduated convinced he was a conservative; he felt no sympathy for his fellow students who commandeered University Hall in 1969 to protest the presence of ROTC on campus, and remembers wondering aloud why his classmates would skip meals and classes they had paid for.

Upon graduating, he spent two years studying Arabic in Cairo, haunting the salons of the city's elite as well as the backstreets and cafés where modern Islamism was born, then returned to Cambridge to get his Ph.D. in medieval Islamic history. Around the time Pipes finished his thesis, though, Ayatollah Khomeini set the Iranian Revolution in motion, and there were few people in this country who were able to explain what was happening. Pipes was one of them, and he soon decided to shift his focus from medieval to modern Islam....

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