The President Needs to Address the Nation

The President needs to address the nation and speak out forcefully about the building of an Islamic community center a few blocks from ground zero (not a “Mosque at ground zero,” as some claim).

The fact of the matter is that there is no war between Islam and the West.   Most Muslims have absolutely no sympathy for the extremist 9-11 perpetrators.   Remember Timothy McVeigh, the patriot who bombed the Oklahoma Federal building, causing over a hundred deaths, including those of children in a day care located there?   He was striking out to defend the Constitution and American liberties from what he saw as an increasingly tyrannical government.

We all agree with McVeigh’s view that the Constitution is important and should be defended, and many would agree that government is getting too powerful.   Does that mean, though, we lump all who support the constitution and love freedom together as potential terrorists?   Would a monument to the Constitution be inappropriate a few blocks from the Oklahoma Federal Building?    Is anyone who says “the government is getting too intrusive and going against the Constitution” a potential terrorist?   To tie Islam to 9-11 is akin to all that.

The message that we have to make — and Obama should be loud and clear — is that there is no war against Islam.   We do not see Islam as the enemy, and we do not think Muslims should have any lower status or respect because of the acts undertaken by terrorists on 9-11.   They were subverting Islam and abusing it to pursue their political agenda.   We need to completely divorce religion from the fight against terrorism, it’s not about Islam.

President Bush made those points after 9-11.   We are not the kind of country that lumps people together and demonizes a whole faith because of the acts of a few.   That would be contrary to American principles.   One woman was shown with a sign that read “we’ll let you build a mosque at ground zero when you let us build a synagogue in Mecca.”  Wow.  First, that’s directly seeing it as a conflict of religions.   Moreover, it’s implying that another country’s dictatorship should be rationale for our denying rights to Americans.   All of this only serves the extremists on all sides.  The anti-Muslim fanatics in the US who want to belittle Muhammad, demonize Islam and claim that the goal of Islam is to kill all non-Muslims and create a world empire love this sort of thing.  They want a “clash of civilizations.”   Hamas, al qaeda and other extremists love it too — they aren’t winning over the hearts and minds of their fellow Muslims.  Only if they can make America seem to be at war with their entire religion can they hope to inspire some kind of broad support.

Politically this has the potential to actually be a windfall for Obama.   This could be the point where the tea party and the far right wing go too far, making themselves look too xenophobic and bigoted to be taken seriously.   People can say, “wait a minute, just look at this rhetoric, this isn’t what we want for the country.”   The Democrats have the potential to turn 2010 into a much better year than it seems like it will be, thanks to the Republicans.

Much to the distress of most mainstream Republicans, the tea party and right wing punditry’s emphasis on issues like this distract from the economic distress which can not help but severely hurt the party in power.  The wild rhetoric and the choice of extreme candidates like Sharon Angle in Nevada are gifts to the Democrats.  The Republicans can potentially be defined as a bit over the top, extreme, erratic, and too focused on political jihad when most of the public want the two parties to compromise and cooperate to solve problems.   Instead of losing 40 House seats and 7 Senate seats, the Democrats could cut their loses to 20 or so in the House and 4 in the Senate — or perhaps do better.

The key is for Obama to now grab the high ground, show leadership, and boldly take what appears to be an unpopular stance.  He should embrace the Islamic center, describing it accurately, educating people on both it and Islamic teachings.   He must make a persuasive case that welcoming such a center is precisely what we need to do in order to undercut those who aspire to launch new terror attacks.   This is the path to peaceful cooperation.   He should recall the fear after 9-11, and the dangers inherent if there is a “clash of civilizations.”   He should quote President Bush and note that until recently it had been a common theme of both parties that this isn’t about religion.   The only way to oppose the community center is to think 9-11 wasn’t about extremists but was actually about the whole of Islam.

Obama should have families of 9-11 victims there who support the community center.  He should talk clearly about American principles, and frame it so opposition seems petty and misguided.   It should be a masterpiece speech, one crafted well — like his race speech in 2008.   If he pulls this off, suddenly Americans will start to question the rhetoric coming from the far right.   Moreover, Obama’s supporters and Democrats will be more energized — nothing energies more than fear and anger at the “other side.”

This could be a major tipping point for the Democrats, the country, and the Republicans.   For the Democrats, this issue could turn around their fortunes and allow them to regain footing.  They just have to define the issue and not mince words.   Obama has to stand on principle, and not try to have it both ways.   For the country this could be the time where we stared into the abyss — a country going against its very principles, willing to demean a whole other faith, all because of what 19 people did on 9-11 — and said, “no, we’re better than this.”  This could be when we show the world that we truly believe in our principles, we are not at war with Islam, and our goal is to work with Muslims in a spirit of mutual respect.

For Republicans, most of whom would prefer to talk about the economy and who find the tea party and the wild rhetoric out there a bit over the top and distracting, it may be a chance for the moderate conservatives to start to shape the conversation.   Remember President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and “ownership society?”  That kind of talk draws people to the Republicans, not demonizing “liberals” or launching a crusade against an Islamic center in Manhattan.

Mr. President, I know it’s a local issue, and you may think that given the economy, it’s really beneath you to elevate it further.   But this is the kind of symbolic issue which needs Presidential voice.   Please, show leadership beyond governance and getting legislation passed, show the symbolic leadership this country needs right now.  It’ll be good for you and your party, it will be good for the country, and ultimately it will even be good for the Republicans.

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  1. #1 by Saladin on August 18, 2010 - 23:09

    You’re absolutely right that we need to see leadership, not lawmaking. If that was his goal, he’d have done fine in the Senate. Sticking to his principles, reminding Americans that we’re a nation built on principles…it can only do good.

  2. #2 by renaissanceguy on August 19, 2010 - 01:22

    A few days ago it was my opinion that the President should not get involved any further. I now agree with you that he should address the issue head-on.

    I’ll write more thoughts later.

  3. #3 by renaissanceguy on August 19, 2010 - 01:50

    Overall, in my view, the truth is somewhere between your idealistic, and somewhat naive way of looking at it and the way that rightwing extremists look at it.

    It is not our intention to be in a war against Islam, but it is the intention of the terrorists for Islam to be in a war against us. Do you dispute what they say about themselves?

    I do not know how you can know that “[m]ost Muslims have absolutely no sympathy for the extremist 9-11 perpetrators.” I do not know either, but I do have the experience of living in two majority-Muslim countries–one in West Africa and one in Southeast Asia. In both instances I encountered lots of anti-American sentiment and knew many supporters of radical groups. A lot of the people who were kind and friendly to me personally were, according to secondhand information, against America and for Osama bin Laden. I suspect that the situation is simply not as rosey as you, in your good-heartedness, would like to think.

    You’re probably right that most Muslims are against terrorism. However, a large enough number are for it to make me cautious.

    As a Christian I disagree with Islam on a religious basis. Its origins speak for themselves. Its history speaks for itself. That obviously doesn’t mean that I want my country to go to war with the Muslim community as a whole.

    As an American I am for freedom of religion. I am not for targeting a religion or targeting a group of people because of their religion.

    However, we are downright silly if we say that this has nothing to do with religion. Do you think that Muslim terrorists are striking out at the West for some other reason than what they themselves say? I think it is actually unfair to them and dangerous to ourselves to deny what they say their motive is.

    I don’t care if an Islamic center is built near Ground Zero. I really don’t. But I care about the people who do care. And I can assure you that some number, and it’s at least in the hundreds of thousands I’m guessing, of Muslim people around the world care very much and will see it as a victory for Islam and for Allah.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on August 19, 2010 - 02:43

      President Bush made it clear it was not about religion. Almost all Muslims in the US are living normal lives, no more extremist than the average patriot compared to Timothy McVeigh. If we let the extremists cause us to look at all believers in a great world religion in a negative way, we’ve let the terrorists win. That’s why I’m so adamant about this — if the community center is not built it’s a victory for al qaeda. I certainly do not care what they extremists think — they might think it a victory for them, but I will not let what extremist fanatics think affect what I do, and no country should let itself be worried about what the extremists think.

      What concerns me more is the message we send to average Muslims abroad, and the way we treat our fellow Muslim citizens at home. We should not mistreat fellow citizens because we are concerned about what a small group of extremists abroad think. Seriously, what they think is totally irrelevant to me, they’re always going to be thinking in a way I don’t like. I want us to play to our best side, that of a country that not only tolerates but embraces diverse opinions, faiths, and ideas, so long as we agree in the core principles of upon which this country was founded.

      RG, you’re a conservative Christian who is very pro-life. Do you really want me equating you and all conservative Christians with abortion clinic bombers? If you were planning a church that happened to be within a few blocks of a clinic that was bombed, would you want to have the fact you’re Christian and pro-life lead people to pressure you to build away from a sight that fit into your plans and for which you had approval? I promise that when voices on the left condemn all pro-life Christians due to the acts of a few crazies, I’ll oppose that just as strongly.

  4. #5 by renaissanceguy on August 19, 2010 - 13:25

    There is no point in bringing up President Bush. He doesn’t dictate what I think.

    No, I don’t want you to equate me with those who bomb abortion clinics. But I am willing to unequivocally condemn the bombing of clinics, as well as the murder of doctors. The key word is unequivocal. Unlike some “moderate” Muslims, such as Feisal Abdul Rauf, who condemns terrorism out of one side of his mouth and then calls America an accomplice out of the ohter side of his mouth.

    I don’t believe that doctors and clinic owners deserve to be attacked. I do not believe that they bring it on themselves when people hurt or kill them. To go even further, I am getting a little tired of people bringing up the bombing of abortion clinics as though it is tit-for-tat. This shold not be a game of Gotcha’. It’s too serious for that.

    Since you bring it up often, I’ll ask you. Can you name a Muslim person who unequivocally condemns terrorism in the name of Allah? Can you name s Muslim person who says that terrorists are not really Muslims (or at least that they are bad Muslims)? Please give a name and an illustrative quotation (without editing, of course). I’ll make it the subject of a post on my blog, if you can supply a name or a few names for me.

  5. #6 by Scott Erb on August 19, 2010 - 14:29

    I’m sorry, but I agree with Rauf, we are an economic accomplice. I condemn terrorism, but also point out that we have helped create the conditions that made it likely — and that we’ve killed far more innocents than have the terrorists. To you that’s not unequivocal (whatever that means), I suppose, so I don’t require unequivocal condemnations. In fact, I think ‘unequivocal condemnations’ are probably mindless because they don’t take into account the reasons this is happening and only condemn. I look only to understand the truth, and the truth is not unequivocal.

    Moreover, you are making an irrational demand: that somehow you need a list of “unequivocal condemnations” in order to treat innocent Americans with respect and equality. I hear many Christians condemn abortion clinic bombings and out of the other side of their mouth talk about how many deaths came from that clinic, thus apparently minimizing the condemnation. No matter, the principle matters, not what people say or how they think. It’s the actions and the principles that matter. And the logic here is the exact same.

    And I don’t think you realize how bigoted statements like “name one Muslim…” appear. I know you are not a bigot, you’re better than that. I could name many, but even going down that route is disgusting. It’s making a group second class and demanding they somehow prove they “think properly” before you give them the respect they deserve. That’s a victory for terrorism — they’re getting good, moral Americans like you to act against the principles I know you hold dear. Think this through.

  6. #7 by renaissanceguy on August 20, 2010 - 04:03

    Scott, to the best of my recollecion, no prominent, recognized leader of the evangelical movement has done anything but categorically denounce and condemn attacks on abortion providers. Can you provide the name of a Christian leader who did otherwise?

    You see, when I ask you to name names, I am not trying to be bigoted. I am trying to get you to provide evidence for your assertions. IF it is true, and I suspect that it is, that most Muslims are against terrorism, then it should be easy to provide some quotations to substantiate that statement. Your reaction makes me think that I touched a nerve.

    • #8 by Scott Erb on August 20, 2010 - 11:59

      I don’t have to “prove” that most Muslims are against terrorism. That’s an obvious fact. Moreover, given that there are 1.5 billion Muslims trying to “name names” is silly — to get “most” I’d need 750,000,001 names. There simply is no reason to think that 19 people on 9-11 and fledgling terror organizations that cannot gain popular support represent anything but a miniscule and failing hyper-minority, sort of the Timothy McVeighs of the Muslim world. Certainly there is no reason to lump them together based on religion and then argue they should be treated differently. It would be like arguing that Catholics should not build a cathedral near a playground because of pedophilia cases. Seriously, for someone who claims to like Ayn Rand you are doing a lot of collective identity stuff here. Individual Muslims wanting to build a community center should be treated no different than individual Christians wanting to build a YMCA just because of the actions of other individuals who committed crimes. Let your libertarian/Randian side come out here!

  7. #9 by renaissanceguy on August 20, 2010 - 14:04

    Scott, I am certainly not arguing that we should treat anyone differently. Anyone can build anything that they want on private property. If the parties involved do not see a reason to relocate, then, by all means, they should build their center.

    I know that you, Scott, do not condemn the Catholic Church wholesale, but others have. A lot of people believe that their is a systemic problem in that church that has led to abuse by priests. They have a valid point, and they need not suggest that all Catholic priests are abusive to make that point.

    That’s my position in regard to Islam. I do not lump all Muslims together, but I know that there are problems in the religion itself that need reforming. To pretend that there is no religious aspect to the hundreds of terrorist attacks committed by Muslims is just weird to me.

    In the Catholic Church there has been an effort to deal with past abuses, although arguably it has been too little, too late. It is embarrassing.

    That’s what I would like to see in the Muslim world. I would like to see a concerted effort by Muslim leaders to officially condemn terrorism as evil and against the tenets of Islam. I would like to see Muslim leaders, including political leaders prosecuting violent criminals. While they are at it, I would like to see them stop the stoning of women and homosexuals and the maiming of thiefs.

    • #10 by Scott Erb on August 20, 2010 - 14:27

      I have a great deal of respect for the Catholic Church as well as Islam, despite problems. Yet Islam is so diverse I don’t think it’s right to say there is a problem with their religion, nor do I think it is at all true to say they haven’t condemned terrorism.

      The problems are political. Due to the nature of the Ottoman Empire the Islamic world, once ahead of the West (and whose ideas helped push the West into modernity) stopped progressing and went into a very conservative stagnation. The cause was more political than religious, and the problems in the region come from authoritarianism, corruption, and oil — that brings in the West, which feeds the corruption and gets involved in local politics, often benefiting elites.

      Solve these underlying political problems, and those angered by the situation won’t turn to religious identity as a means to try to bring change. Terrorism did not emerge as a major threat until recently as those political issues become more intense. If terrorism was related to the religion, it would be there all along. In fact, the West has the most violent past — should one say “look at communism, the holocaust, and world wars — how can you say that Christians created that and yet there isn’t a problem with Christianity?” It because those things were political creations, sometimes using Christianity (e.g. crusades, mass murders in Latin America, etc.) falsely to rationalize those acts. It’s not the religion in either case, it is politics.

      Yet even with all that, the fact is that the Taliban and al qaeda are not winning over the hearts and minds of most Muslims. All the time I read Muslims condemning terrorism, and noting that what bin Laden does is a perversion of Islam. Only the most radical of voices support that, and unfortunately those are the few voices pushed by the far right who want to demonize Islam. If “hundreds” of terrorist acts are committed by people who share a religion with 1,500,000,000 others, then the problem is really tiny — do the math and see what percentage that is!

      That’s why this issue is important. We cannot define it as a problem with the religion, but its a political problem rooted in the Islamic world which only recently has seen radicals try to use religion to foster a rebellion against modernism and the West. They are not winning in their own lands, and if we show that we respect Islam, embrace things like this community center, and refuse to talk ill of the entire faith, we will help those who want to bring political change to the Arab world, Iran (where real movement for change is underway) and elsewhere. It’s politics, not religion.

  8. #11 by renaissanceguy on August 20, 2010 - 21:02

    On some points you are starting to persuade me. I’ll give it some more thought.

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