What Obama Meant to Say About the Mosque

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Inside the country, what New Yorkers think matters; what bloggers and commentators and politicians think matters quite a bit less. Outside the country, to the extent that the chattering class conveys a picture of opinion, errant musings can become, quite paradoxically, powerful reflections of American sentiment. This is why President Obama felt compelled to weigh in on the Cordoba House mosque.

Obama's political coalition: young Americans, modernists, seculars, suburban couples who believe in the virtue of tolerance, members of stigmatized minority groups -- they understand why Obama supports the mosque ... why he is willing to defy the political consensus and comfort the marginalized.

Here is where Obama is coming from: regardless of whether Islam IS fundamentally compatible with America, the American government must do everything in its power to make sure that Muslims of the next generation believe that it can be compatible. Even if Osama Bin Laden is not wrong, our national security is predicated on convincing Muslims that he is wrong. It should come as no surprise that Obama supports the mosque's construction: what could be a more powerful counter-argument to the idea that the West is warring with Islam than the American president endorsing the construction of a mosque a few blocks away from a sacred site?

That said, I think we've misread Obama's opinion. He suggested Saturday that there's a difference between objecting to the placement of a mosque and objecting to the right of a mosque to place itself wherever it legally can. In other words, one might have an objection to that mosque, or might be suspicious of the motives of the imam, but one can simultaneously accept the need for sensitivity and still find it offensive to use the instruments of government to enforce that sensitivity -- the freedom of religious practice is the paramount value here. This is a sophisticated position, but in attempting to be careful about how he expressed it, the President confused rather than clarified. (Islamophobes and their political enablers will tell you it's because he's either a closet Muslim, a naive facilitator of jihad, or worse. It's tempting to laugh at these explanations, but too many people seem to believe them.)

FDNY firefighters will protest the mosque today. The anxiety from New Yorkers is legitimate, as is their offense at being called bigots. Something attacked their city on September 11, 2001 and Islam had something to do with it. The bigotry here is not in opposing the mosque. It is in the politicization of the issue.

Most New Yorkers oppose the mosque's construction. Two-thirds of Americans have taken to the issue and are polarized; the other third doesn't seem to care. So the president's pushing against the grain. Actually, he's pushing against a field of grain, maize, and weeds. He's pushing against a resurgence in anti-cosmopolitanism, against the constructed identity of America as a collection of white ethnic immigrants, against the forces that fear a majority minority nation -- AND against the emotional scars that New Yorkers, even cosmopolitan New Yorkers who couldn't care less if their daughters marry other women, carry on a daily basis.

In America, the Judeo-Christian heritage has essentially been smoothed over into a blend of cultures and traditions that we see as equal. Islam was always marginal. The truth is, as Osama Bin Laden would have it, that Islam and Western values are at odds now; civilizations are clashing. America has never assimilated its Muslims even as Muslims have assimilated into America. Add to this the recent homegrown terrorism attempts from Muslims who've been radicalized by the past ten years and it suddenly seems almost sensible that many Americans do not consider the practice of Islam harmless. This is not a comfortable or capacious worldview, but it is not something that elites, people who don't see Islam the same way, should trivialize.

Is this bigotry? Yes. Is it rational? Yes. Is it rational to make a special pleading on behalf of sensitivity for a mosque near Ground Zero when one refuses to stigmatize the Catholic Church for officiously ignoring the serial sexual assault of children under its care? Well, in political-historical terms, yes. Catholicism is now fully Americanized. Its sins can be dealt with on their own terms. But 9/11 -- that was a transcendental event facilitated by the perversion of a religion that should be, but is not yet, part of One America.

That's soft bigotry and it is excusable.

But since 9/11, despite the best efforts of some of our political leaders, who know that our national security depends on an American Muslim community that feels that it is part of America and not separate from it, it has been easier and more acceptable to delegitimize, to castigate, to cast out an entire religion. 

Observing this, politicians and political consultants, who know how to exploit sentiments, are whipping it. They're screening out all of the ambiguities and playing to fears. This is what politicians do. Take a fear and work it until it becomes politically powerful. Everything runs together. They've reduced Obama's identity to a series of questions: Does he really believe that Islam is on par with Christianity and Judaism? Is he is really one of us? Is he attempting to pacify Muslims by buying into a public relations campaign waged by "moderate Muslims" who actually want to legitimize Jihad? Many evangelical Christians see Islam as the religion of the anti-Christ. Good politicians can so easily exploit even OUR religions.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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