The mosque, the gut, the brain

    Weighing in this weekend on the latest summer kerfuffle – the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque, several blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan – President Obama risked political damage when he defended the project on constitutional grounds. (“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”) Clearly he doesn’t care what the polls say, because only 30 percent of Americans share his take on the issue. But here’s the bottom line about the president’s decision to speak out:

    An enormously complex and emotional issue – but ultimately the right thing to do. A president is president for every citizen, including every Muslim citizen. Obama is correct that the way to marginalize radicalism is to respect the traditions of Islam and protect the religious liberty of Muslim Americans. It is radicals who imagine an American war on Islam. But our conflict is with radicals alone. America treasures the relationship we have with our many Muslim friends, and we respect the vibrant faith of Islam, which inspires countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity of morality.

    By the way, those aren’t my words. The first five sentences in that paragraph were uttered verbatim the other day by conservative Michael Gerson, ex-chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. And the final sentence, about respecting “the vibrant faith of Islam,” is a verbatim passage from a 2002 speech delivered by Bush himself.

     

    Weighing in this weekend on the latest summer kerfuffle – the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque, several blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan – President Obama risked political damage when he defended the project on constitutional grounds. (“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”) Clearly he doesn’t care what the polls say, because only 30 percent of Americans share his take on the issue. But here’s the bottom line about the president’s decision to speak out:

    An enormously complex and emotional issue – but ultimately the right thing to do. A president is president for every citizen, including every Muslim citizen. Obama is correct that the way to marginalize radicalism is to respect the traditions of Islam and protect the religious liberty of Muslim Americans. It is radicals who imagine an American war on Islam. But our conflict is with radicals alone. America treasures the relationship we have with our many Muslim friends, and we respect the vibrant faith of Islam, which inspires countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity of morality.

    By the way, those aren’t my words. The first five sentences in that paragraph were uttered verbatim the other day by conservative Michael Gerson, ex-chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. And the final sentence, about respecting “the vibrant faith of Islam,” is a verbatim passage from a 2002 speech delivered by Bush himself.

    Bush could apparently say those things and suffer minimal fallout, perhaps because he was a white Republican from Texas. But Obama doesn’t have those luxuries. When this president stands up for religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment – basically reiterating the Bush stance – he is promptly dismissed by critics as a terrorist softy.

    Witness Ed Rollins, the famous Republican strategist of 1980s vintage, who made it clear yesterday on CBS News that the GOP will seek to exploit Obama’s remarks during the ’10 midterm campaign: “Probably the dumbest thing that any president has said since (’88 Democratic candidate) Michael Dukakis said it was OK to burn the flag. This is an emotional issue. Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue.”

    Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue…Well, that said it all. Rollins basically conceded that Obama framed the mosque issue correctly – thus seconding Michael Gerson – but suggested nonetheless that, in hot-button politics, the gut generally trumps the brain. (He’s right about that, which is why Republicans tend to win these kinds of disputes. Did Mike Dukakis really say it was “OK” to burn the flag? Nope. He argued that the First Amendment protected distasteful forms of dissent – which is exactly what conservative Justice Antonin Scalia argued a few years later, when he was the swing vote on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that defended flag-burning. But to remember all that, one is required to utilize the brain.)

    Anyway, although it’s clearly unpopular to say this, the truth is that the First Amendment religious-liberty guarantee was crafted to protect unpopular religious groups. That bedrock guarantee is more important than any Gallup poll or transient emotional squall. Which is a good thing, because emotions do tend to cloud rational thought. Here are several such thoughts:

    Scores of Muslim-Americans were killed on 9/11, too…Muslims have been praying inside the Pentagon – where 184 people were killed on 9/11 – ever since a memorial service was conducted there one month after the attack…The New York site – to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero on private property in accordance with city zoning laws – would not just be a mosque, as is widely implied. It’s a proposed community complex that would feature (among other things) a pool, restaurants, an auditorium, and art exhibition space.

    This kind of project falls well within the religious-liberty guarantee. Moreover, it falls well within the religious-liberty law that was enacted 10 years ago by the Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton. Amidst the current passions, nobody seems to be talking about this law. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch was the chief Senate sponsor; Florida Republican congressman Charles Canady led the House sponsorship. The law specifically states: “No government shall impose or implement a land-use regulation that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.” On the day it passed the House, Canady stressed that the measure was designed “to protect one of the most fundamental aspects of religious freedom, the right to gather and worship, and to protect the religious exercise of a class of people particularly vulnerable to government regulation.”

    President Bush – voicing what was once an acceptable Republican position – understood that it was important to safeguard the religious liberty of those who were most unpopular and hence the most vulnerable. But I’ll cede the final quote to a Muslim woman named Omsalama Ahmed. I met her in 1993, when I was a foreign correspondent working on a long piece about Muslims in France and Britain. She lived in a middle-class white neighborhood in Birmingham, and was shunned by her neighbors.

    “They’d look at me like I was from outer space,” she told me (I still have the notes). “Seven years on the street, and I’ve never been to my neighbors’. And I know that nobody will come to me. But one goal I still do have. It seems to me that all religions, living together with respect for each other, is good for mankind. Isn’t it?”

    Well? Isn’t it?

    ——-

    Other stuff:

    I wrote a Sunday newspaper column about Bill Clinton’s latest political comeback, here, and plan to do a live chat at 1 p.m. on Clinton and whatever else, here.

    On last Friday’s Radio Times show on WHYY, I partook in a lively political discussion with Ross Baker of Rutgers and Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair. Purdum has a great new piece about the current (dysfunctional) political climate in Washington, D.C., here.

    Note to readers: Design-wise, this blog is a work in progress. The National Interest logo will soon be hoisted into place, and undoubtedly there will be more technical tweaks. When WHYY moves the blog later this year to its newly-launched Newsworks site, it will be tweaked again. Patience, all.

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