As anyone who has spoken honestly about Islam knows, multiculturalism isn’t all that “multi” and relativism isn’t all that relative.
This lesson I learned in an unexpected place, the venerable Chautauqua (sha-TAWK-wa) Institution in Western New York, a physically beautiful summer colony with a strong ecumenical Christian tradition.
The climactic scene of my one and only novel, the then-futuristic “2006: The Chautauqua Rising,” unfolded at the Institution. Set, as the reader might surmise, in 2006, this political action thriller tells the tale of a grass-roots insurrection that in many ways anticipated the tea party insurgency of 2009-10.
At the time of the book’s publication, the year 2000, I was unaware of any political turmoil at Chautauqua. In the book, I described the Institution as “a perfectly preserved wish dream of late 19th century Americana.”
My gripe at the time was that it was “too quiet, too calm, too relentlessly civilized.”A casual visitor, I did not sense that Chautauqua had long been drifting leftward both politically and theologically.
In the previous decade, much of the tension at the Institution revolved around the progressives’ newfound enthusiasm for things gay. The left’s fondness for imputing bigotry to others was, however, about to find a new focus.
In 2000, the Institution chose the former “general secretary” of the hard left National Council of Churches, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, to be its director of religion. Four years earlier, Campbell had helped orchestrate the black church burning hysteria/ hoax that excited the Democratic base in the run-up to the 1996 election.
The year before her appointment to Chautauqua, Campbell did her Christian best to deliver young refugee Elian Gonzalez to the godless purgatory of Communist Cuba.
This longtime apologist for Fidel Castro hewed faithfully to the party line. Dominican Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, who was helping facilitate Elian’s return, experienced her dogmatism firsthand.
In meeting Elian’s visiting grandmothers, O’Laughlin saw how intimidated they were by their Cuban handlers and their chaperone Campbell. Shocked by what she saw, O’Laughlin had a public change of heart about Elian’s fate.
Campbell was none too pleased with O’Laughlin’s apostasy. She had the NCC issue a press release condemning her for fueling “the fire of controversy” and promptly had her removed from her role as facilitator.
True to form, the progressives now running Chautauqua remembered this power play fondly. “When Janet Reno is looking for someone really tough to get on the [Elian] case you have some sense of whom we are dealing with here,” said an acolyte at Campbell’s 2013 retirement roast. “Don’t Mess With Joan.”
Upon her arrival at Chautauqua, Campbell embarked on two contradictory missions, one public, one private. Publicly, she championed “interfaith dialogue,” specifically an outreach to Muslims known as the “Abrahamic Initiative.”
A gay-friendly Christian community with a bathing beach, an active theater scene and a substantial Jewish population may not have seemed a natural draw for Muslims, but Campbell was insistent.
“We didn’t have a Muslim presence,” she told a reporter for a local newspaper, “but we knew if we wanted to talk about the Abraham link, we needed to have all three legs of the stool.”
She expected resistance to her stool-building. “There is among the Jewish groups, and some conservative Christian groups as well, an objection to Islam,” Campbell lamented.
It would, of course, take some persuasion to build a stool when two of the legs objected, but as Chautauqua was learning, “Don’t Mess With Joan.”
Privately, for all her talk of “inclusivity,” Campbell began to crack down on the one group that was resisting the new regime, the conservative Chautauqua Christian Fellowship (CCF).
Whereas the group had once been able to run its own programs freely and without interference, Campbell now limited the CCF to three speakers a year. In the summer of 2002, the CCF invited me. Since I had never spoken or written about Islam, I apparently passed muster.
That same summer Campbell had invited Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to lay the groundwork for a Muslim cultural center at Chautauqua. This was the same New Jersey slumlord who planned to build a mosque at the site of Ground Zero.
Addressing what I called the “illiberal orthodoxy of the American media,” I explained how the media make one notable exception to their consistently bigoted and illiberal stereotyping of the religious right.
“Islamic extremists in America have proven to be exactly the bogeyman that the media have long imagined the Christian right to be – patriarchal, theocratic, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice and openly anti-Semitic,” I said.
I then added what I thought an innocent comment: “And according to at least one brave Muslim moderate, Sheik Muhammad Kabbani, 80 percent of the mosques in America are in the hands of genuine extremists, some of whom are not above encouraging murder to get their way.”
Kabbani, the chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, had made this claim at a State Department event in 1999. Campbell had a spy at my speech who recorded it without permission.
“We base our own support at Chautauqua on the freedom of religion,” Campbell would later tell a reporter from a local newspaper, “and it is part of our Christian responsibility to protect the faith of everyone.”
Apparently, she was not so keen on protecting the freedom of speech. Soon after my talk, Campbell wrote an op-ed in Chautauqua’s daily newspaper saying that I “had crossed the line” that protects free speech and should not be allowed to speak on the grounds again.
As reason for my ban, she singled out my citation of Kabbani. It wasn’t that I misquoted him, but rather that Campbell did not like what Kabbani had said.
I was learning what the CCF already knew: Tolerance was not exactly in the progressive wheelhouse. Of the more than half-dozen dissident Christians and Jews I spoke to about Campbell’s reign, none was willing to speak on the record.
They feared reprisal. “She has eyes everywhere,” one told me. The friends of Islam, I saw up close, were nothing if not vigilant. And beware – they may soon be coming to a neighborhood near you.
Media wishing to interview Jack Cashill, please contact [email protected].