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.