What Obama Meant to Say About the Mosque

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.

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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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