Calling someone a name, slandering him, is worse than stealing from him. For goods can be restored. A person’s unblemished good name cannot be. One never removes the stench of slander no matter how hard one tries to scrub it clean through remorse, expressions of regret and apologies, or even evidence of innocence. Once released, like an arrow, a slander cannot be intercepted, even if it falls wide of the mark, even if it ends up sticking out of a shield. Note that slandering someone does not mean you are lying. What you say may be very true. I was struck by that observation when I watched the documentary biopic on the political campaign of Anthony Weiner when he was running for mayor of New York City in 2013.
In Weiner, the filmmakers Josh Kriegman (a former Weiner staff member when Weiner was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) and Elyse Steinberg documented the attempted political comeback in 2013 of Anthony Weiner from a sexting scandal. He had been re-elected seven times as the U.S. Representative (D-NY) in the 9th Congressional District in Queens. Weiner resigned his seat in 2011 when a photo of his erection under his underwear had been distributed on the internet.
Although he initially claimed that his twitter account had been hacked, he himself had evidently sent the photo to his 45,000 twitter followers in error. Whether it was a Freudian error is a separate question. Further, he tried to come clean at a news conference on 6 June when he informed the public that he had e-sex with six women whom he had never met. The film is about the mayoral campaign that took place two years later when Weiner attempted a political comeback. And the comeback seemed to be succeeding. He was leading in the polls when a new scandal broke in mid-campaign; a woman from Indiana released the photos and texts she had received from Weiner after he resigned in 2011.
The story then becomes fascinating as Weiner tries to keep his campaign on track as the media insist on dealing with a) the new and more explicit sex scandal and b) how he handled the fact that he in effect misled the American public in insisting he had been “born again” and had learned from the terrible mistake of his bad judgement. The documentary is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there is the detailed exposure of what goes into campaigning, from using contacts and obsequious rhetoric to wheedle money from potential supporters, to both receiving advice and keeping the paid staff on target in the face of a tidal wave of a second scandal threatening (and succeeding) in washing the whole campaign down the sewer.
The politics take place on a number of levels. On the one hand, the Clinton scandal of Bill Clinton’s presidential years shadows the whole film, not only because Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, worked closely as a political aide and confidante of Hillary Clinton running for President of the United States, but the ghost of the question of how Hillary could stand by her man haunts the whole biopic. Further, Huma Abedin was herself intimately involved in the rumbling scandal of Hillary using a personal email address while she was Secretary of State and more and more emails from her personal account were revealed as Hillary’s campaign unfolded.
In 1996, Huma Mahmood Abedin began working for Hillary as an intern three years after her father died when she was still a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at George Washington University. She rose to become Deputy Chief of Staff to the U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. It was in this period that Huma and Anthony culminated a courtship that had begun in 2007, though they had known each other since 2001. Huma married Anthony Weiner on 10 July 2010 when he was still a U.S. Congressman. Bill Clinton officiated at their marriage. She was pregnant when the scandal broke. Jordan Zain Weiner is four-years-old now. He is shown in his first political appearances being wheeled in his stroller by the candidate during his mayoral election run. He is also seen lying by his side in bed in the latest sexting scandal, but more on that later.
Today, Huma Abedin continues to serve as vice chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for President. At the same time, there is the echo of the Donald Trump campaign in the biopic, for Weiner comes across as a populist as well, one perhaps with a genuine feel for the plight of the middle class, but a populist nevertheless. In his case, a series of sexual electronic indiscretions, along with a failure of full revelation when the issue first arose (it was insufficient for him to say that worse could be forthcoming), was his undoing. When that omission combined with the fact that he repeated the offences at an even dirtier level even after he was initially exposed, confessed his indiscretion and supposedly vowed not to repeat the bad judgement, guaranteed that his campaign would tank. And it did.
The film is excruciating to watch. It is one thing for Anthony Weiner to allow the documentary to continue as his campaign unravels and as his failures torment him, but he vows to continue marching forward. Is the action courageous or foolhardy? Or did he really have no choice? After all, he is the cause of his own unmaking. But to watch Huma Abedin go through her private suffering in public and then, after first standing by and for her man, forced to withdraw, induced in me extreme pain and embarrassment for her. Withdrawing from the campaign after the second revelation for personal and political self-protection may have been a realistic appraisal that the campaign was going down the tubes, as well as a clear recognition that she was in a no-win situation. She could not now appear to stand beside her husband without looking like a ninny or a psychologically abused wife in a case in which political loyalty had morphed into political suicide.
In a situation where the activities of her husband were now endangering the larger political campaign of Hillary Clinton, to whom she owed as deep a loyalty, the dimensions of the tragedy are enormously inflated. The efforts at spin as the tornado whips down on the campaign are physically embarrassing. So it is fully understandable why she had to announce she was leaving the marriage on Monday when Anthony Weiner once again embarrassed her with his sexual compulsions.
However, Huma Abedin is not an innocent abroad. She had her own supposed scandals to worry about, some issues directly tied to her employment for Hillary Clinton and others to her being a devout Muslim. Re the latter, in the film Weiner loses his cool as he campaigns in a Jewish bakery presumably in Brooklyn. A man with a kippa is hectoring him for Anthony’s shameless behavior and repeatedly asking him how he can stand for election when he is supposed to be a model for others. Weiner leaves the bakery but soon returns to engage in a shouting match with the elector asking repeatedly who he is to judge him. As it turns out, we only learn afterwards that what likely instigated his losing his cool in such a self-destructive way was a remark he heard the man make. “And you married a Muslim.”
As it turns out, in the 2016 election, being a Muslim had become an issue as anti-Muslim bigotry became part of Donald Trump’s campaign. The issue arose just before Weiner initiated his attempted comeback mayoral campaign. Five Republicans (Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Trent Franks of Arizona, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Thomas Rooney of Florida and Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia) wrote a letter dated 13 June 2012 to the State Department Inspector General alleging that the Abedin family members were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The allegations questioning security clearance for Huma began with her father. Syed Zainul Abedin was an Indian Muslim intellectual who, when Huma was two-years-old, took his wife and children to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where he was offered the position by Dr. Abdullah bin Omar Nasseef, a chemist and biologist, who was then president of King Abdulaziz University. The post was director of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs (IMMA), which was Syed’s specialty. He also began editing the Institute of Minority Affairs, Journal which in 1996 became The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.
The two thick issues in 1992, the year before his untimely death in 1993, provide no hint of any connection between Syed Zaimal Abedin and radical Islam. The first issue of 1992 has as its lead article one by the former Princeton University professor and famous Arabist, Bernard Lewis, entitled, “Legal and Historical Reflections on the Position of Muslim Populations under Non-Muslim Rule.” Bernard Lewis would never knowingly publish an article in a quasi-radical Islamist journal, and he would hardly likely to be “unknowing”.
An article by Fadwa N. Kirrish on “Druze Ethnicity in the Golan Heights: The Interface of Religion and Politics,” argued that Druze ethnicity infused with its unique religious orientation arose out of the circumstantial forces of the eleventh century and continues to be reinforced currently by different extraneous forces. These articles and others, as well as the special issue on Islamic banking, give no hint of a radical political program. Yet one of the right-wing sites, The Conservative Atheist, insists that the journal is managed by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, “a virulently anti-Semitic and sharia-supremacist organization.” However, Noah Feldman, director of the Julis-Rabinowitz Program in Jewish and Israeli Law at Harvard University insists that, “I’ve never seen anything in any way radical” in the journal.
Syed’s wife, Saleha Mahmood Abedin, a Pakistani intellectual, took over the running of the journal as well as the directorship of the Institute after her husband’s death. Huma became assistant editor from 1996, when she first interned with Hillary Clinton. She retained that position until 2008, long after she started working full time for Hillary. (Her brother, Hassan, is the book review editor and her sister, Heba, is an assistant editor at the journal.) For criticisms of the allegations of Huma’s ties to radical Islam see The Washington Post, “Claims of Huma Abedin’s extremist ties are laughable,” in the 28 August 2016 issue, and a more thorough article by William D. Cohan, “Is Huma Abedin Hillary Clinton’s Secret Weapon of Her Next Big Problem?” in the February 2016 issue of Vanity Fair.
There is also a book length scholarly study by Marie Juul Petersen, For Humanity or for the Umma?: Aid and Islam in Transnational Muslim NGOs. Though I have not read the latter, my colleague Michael Barnett, currently University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science, George Washington University, and author of Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, described this 2016 work as “a path-breaking study of Muslim NGOs. Avoiding the hype and following the theory and the evidence, Peterson produces a richly textured and nuanced appreciation of how these religious NGOs navigate the worlds in which they are embedded. At once careful and creative, hers is a study that not only shines a light on the complexity of Muslim NGOs, but also points a way toward understanding religious NGOs in an age of emergency and the relief-development nexus.”
Saleha was active in the International Islamic Council for Da’wa and Relief (IICDR), an umbrella organization based in Cairo for over 100 Islamic NGOs and GOs responsible for spreading the message of Islam (“develop Islamic action to match the divine mission of the Islamic civilization and assure the unity of the human family”), improving intra-Islamic accord and offering charity – to needy orphans and widows of course. That organization was then headed by Nasseef, the alleged link to radical Islam and the university president. Nasseef was an activist as well as scientist, a very prominent member of the worldwide scouting movement, chair of the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies (Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one of the members of the Board of Trustees), chair of the World Muslim Congress, founding chair of the Sahm Al-Nour Trust and, until Syed died in 1993, Secretary General of the Muslim World League.
Andrew McCarthy is the former Assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who prosecuted Omar Abdel-Rahman, “The Blind Sheikh,” currently serving a life sentence in South Carolina for “seditious conspiracy” for his leadership of “The Islamic Group,” Egyptian terrorists responsible for the 1997 Luxor attack that killed 58 tourists and 4 Egyptians. McCarthy, based on his investigations, alleged that the Muslim World League was a supremacist Muslim organization.
What about IICDR? In the flowery language often associated with classical Islamic learning, it is described by its supporters as having a “mission of congeniality among different factions…cradling serenity and harmony.” They insist that until 9/11 nations were living in “a cooperative spirit,” and that a “state of tranquility and security prevailed, generating senses of cordiality and confidence, as well as of mutuality and interdependence.” The reality was that Islamicist extremism long pre-dated 9/11. Al-Qaeda was founded in 1988. Were the Muslim World League and IICDR, under the cover of congenial cooperation with all faiths and nations, promoting Islamic supremacism of which Islamicist terrorism was the hidden militant part? Were Muslim charities serving as conduits to launder money for terrorism?
Critics (The Global Muslim Brotherhood Watch, Shoebat, the Christian rescue organization, The Atheist Conservative, The Counter Jihad Report) of IICDR and other organizations connected to the Abedin family, claim that IMMA (the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs) had ties to Muslim extremists and is the principal tool for propagating the Muslim Brotherhood faith. The charge is not simply that the organization taught the superiority of the Muslim faith but the supremacy of that faith under the guise of interfaith dialogue. For example, the site Shoebat.com claims that IMMA itself has as its prime objective transforming “non-Muslim lands into Muslim lands until all lands have Muslim majorities.” I could find no evidence to support the charge.
Israel banned the International Islamic Council for Da’wa and Relief, in which Saleha was intimately involved, and which Nasseem chairs and which al-Qaradawi runs. In July 2008, Ehud Barak, then Israeli Defence Minister, signed the order banning it and 35 other Islamic funds around the world, all members of the “Union of Good” banned back in 2002 when it was charged with being an organization that funnels monies to Hamas. For a full frontal attack on Huma Abedin, see Lee Stranahan, “The Truth About Huma Abedin that Media Matters Doesn’t Want America to See,” published by Breitbart News then run by Stephen Bannon who now runs Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. (http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/01/18/the-truth-about-huma-abedin-that-media-matters-doesnt-want-america-to-see/)
In addition to the overcharged Islamic Issue, Hillary’s emails and the issue of the Benghazi Libya attack on the American embassy in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed (Huma testified for eight hours on the issue before the Republican-led House Select Committee on Benghazi), there were suspicions of financial malfeasance. Investigations were initiated by Charles Ernest “Chuck” Grassley, the long-serving Republican senator from Iowa. The U.S. State Department subpoenaed documents on the Clinton Foundations charity for which Huma worked in 2012 while also simultaneously working part time for the State Department, Hillary Clinton personally as well as a private consulting firm. Was there a conflict of interest? Was she overpaid when she took maternity leave? With many exceptions, such as Senator John McCain and Senator Marco Rubio, Republicans in Congress were engaged in a multifaceted attack of innuendo on Huma that paid little attention to evidence-based research.
For example, when Huma was working for the State Department, she earned $155,000. That was the period in 2011 when Anthony resigned and gave up his salary of $174,000. Yet, in the film, they seem to be living in a luxurious apartment building during Anthony’s attempt at a comeback. In 2011, both were forced to sell their respective condos, hers in Washington and his in Forest Hills for which they received $629,000 and $430,000 respectively. Jack Rosen, a New York developer, rented them the luxury Park Avenue apartment presumably at a market value of over $3 million and a monthly market rent of $12,000, an amount greater than it seemed that they could afford. In 2012, unlike Donald Trump, they publicly reported a combined income of almost a half a million dollars from Anthony’s new consulting work, but the majority came from her four parallel jobs. However, no evidence has been produced of any wrongdoing.
Claims of overcharging the State Department for Huma’s part time work, of exceeding the allowance allowed for part time employees, of using her consulting work to promote patronage appointments, and charges of conflicts of interest, plagued her, but were evidently expected and de rigeur for anyone who worked for Hillary in the American system of checks and imbalances. So although Huma in the biopic lurks painfully in the background, while often enough in the foreground, in a sense the biopic is emotionally more about her than Anthony.
In watching Weiner, I was less interested in the obvious commentary about American politics as demanding spectacle and being a circus, with the clear recognition that such a process has to attract a certain type of personality which requires the hide of a hippopotamus with some sense of genuine compassion for the other. So the tragedy proceeds on a personal, interpersonal, social and political level touching the pinnacle of power in the world. Nothing could be more Greek than a picture of a penis undermining the centre of power in the world.
Often it is said that the job of documentary filmmakers and photo-journalists is to catch people in public office in the unguarded moments between their private and their public lives when their masks are taken off. But Anthony Weiner seemed to readily parade around in his underwear, or what appeared to be his underwear shorts, so that self-revelation in the unguarded moment was clearly a product of his own making just as Donald Trump’s campaign is unravelling as a result of who he is and how he conducts himself. However, the internet, the ubiquitous presence of cameras masquerading as cell phones, and the rise of the politician who literally lays it all out, seem to have given the photo-journalists and documentary filmmakers even more work.
All this is an aside to the issue of a tale and scandal-mongering. The woman eager for attention and delighted in her own quest for a moment of fame is a teller of tales. She is the instigator of the second scandal, even though everything she apparently reported was true. She claimed that she was driven to reveal all by the hypocrisy of Weiner’s candidacy and his half-hearted and misleading apologetics. But her performance seems to indicate a much greater concern with being in the sunlight herself. Further, CNN reported that the latest disclosure of Anthony Weiner’s not-so-hidden erection is a Trump supporter. So although Jeremiah 9:3 reads, “They make ready their tongue like a bow, to shoot lies; it is not by truth that they triumph in the land,” the reality is that slander progresses and builds like a tidal wave as much in the so-called quest for truth as in the Trump business of propagating lies.
When the proverb says “a gossip betrays a confidence but a trustworthy person keeps a secret,” (11:13) we know for sure those homilies are partially dated at a time when it is almost impossible to keep anything secret. At the same time, it may perhaps be a more urgent time for promoting the principle that engaging in gossip and scandal mongering, whether in the pursuit of political advancement through hyperbole, exaggeration and outright defamation, or in the pursuit of truth, should be condemned. However, in analyzing scandal mongering, am I not myself engaged in precisely the exercise I seem to be criticizing?