President Obama’s Ground Zero Game-Playing

I’ve steered clear of the “Ground Zero mosque” story because, I thought, it’s both (1) a misnomer (neither actually at “Ground Zero” nor technically a “mosque”); and (2) so much of it has been a tempestuous belaboring of the obvious.  Of course private property owners in Manhattan have a legal right, subject to zoning laws and building codes, to build whatever they wish on their property, and of course erecting a 13-story Muslim cultural center two blocks away from Ground Zero is insensitive.  Let the games conclude please.

Then President Obama finally weighed in Friday evening.  Sort of.  It got interesting.

“But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

True that, Mr. President.  I’ve seen a few rants, mostly pleas, some anger, mostly discussions of wisdom and prudence.  I haven’t seen anyone outside of actual adjudications of “local laws and ordinances” taking issue with any legal right.  To frame the issue (wrongly) as those who support Muslim rights versus those who oppose Muslim rights is quite remarkably and gratuitously divisive.

And it was bizarrely personalized.  “As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” declares the President with nine superfluous and self-aggrandizing opening words.  What the President meant to say, I think, and what would have been more succinctly powerful as an opening salvo, is simply, “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.”  Instead, he did two things with his personalized “I believe” introduction – (1) he located himself, with emphasis upon himself, on a moral perch, to which he implicitly beckoned his fellow Americans; and (2) he set himself and his belief system oddly, and counterfactually, apart from some imagined sea of Americans who allegedly doubt his simplistic moral proposition.

If the President wishes to speak some version of “come hither unto me,” then he should invoke a proposition less insulting than the patently obvious “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.”

And then we come to the President’s stern condemnation of Al Qaeda – all true and commendable, especially the important observation about Al Qaeda having killed more Muslims than people of any other religion.  Which brings us again to the President’s continuing war on the language of terrorism.  “So that’s who we’re fighting against,” he declares.

Well, yes and no. We’re certainly fighting against Al Qaeda – but that’s not all.  There’s the Taliban in Afghanistan for the most obvious additional example.  And there’s every splinter stripe of Islamist terrorism – by whatever name they choose – for numerous additional examples.  For the President to shrivel the definition of our enemies this way is to foment a manipulative semantic war that terrorists will win.

“Past eras,” the President says, “have seen controversies about the construction of synagogues or Catholic churches.”  Really?  The President declines to elaborate.  Please do tell.  I love history and want to know.  I’m aware of the benign Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, which the Pope at the time asked them to relocate so as not to offend Jewish sensitivities respecting a place where Jews were genocidally slaughtered (and not by Catholics).  What are the other examples?  And did any American example involve a “synagogue or Catholic Church” near a site where Jews or Catholics slaughtered thousands of innocents?  Your solicitude for Islam is commendable, Mr. President, but please do not abuse history.

The President rightly applauds “our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us.”  Amen.  That is why Muslims in America have enjoyed, and should always enjoy, a positive reception, a welcoming invitation to participate in the American enterprise, and comfortable latitude to practice their faith freely.

The many Americans who are troubled by the “Ground Zero mosque” wish most profoundly, it seems to me, to see something like “not merely tolerance, but respect” for them from the Muslim community.  That is a very tricky, but very real, cultural tension, and for the President to miss it altogether – indeed to make it a one-way street applicable only to Muslim entitlement – seems remarkably tone-deaf.

If the President were responding to chronic and widespread anti-Muslim bigotry, his protracted celebration of Islam and Muslim contribution to America might look like genuine leadership.  But no such wave of anti-Muslim bigotry has ever happened in this country, before or after 9-11.  Indeed, in 2008, the last year for which figures are available, the FBI reports that of the 1,732 victims of anti-religious hate crimes, 66.1% were Jews and 7.5% were Muslims.

And then it got really interesting.  Conservatives bristled at the President’s failure to engage them on the actual issue – not the legal right, but the appropriateness or wisdom of building the Islamic center, the issue, that is, not merely of tolerance, but respect.  Meanwhile, liberals praised the president for his courage in taking the high ground and resolutely promoting not merely the legal right but the appropriateness of the Muslim building.  Greg Sargent gushed in The Washington Post about “one of the finest moments of Obama’s Presidency”:

“Obama didn’t just stand up for the legal right of the group to build the Islamic center. He voiced powerful support for their moral right to do so as well, casting it as central to American identity. This is a critical point, and it goes to the essence of why his speech was so commendable.”

Wow.  Someone misheard the President.  Did the President actively endorse the Islamic center or merely belabor the obvious about the “legal right” to build it?  On Saturday, the day after his speech, the President threw his liberal supporters under the bus:

“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”

So, in fact, we’re back to a lecture belaboring the obvious that virtually no one disputes – and the President “will not comment on” the actual issue that has engaged so many Americans: “the wisdom” of building the “mosque.” (Note the President’s use of “mosque” for the first time.  Okay, “mosque” it is.)

The President will engineer a high-profile diplomatic dispute over Israel building homes in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, but he won’t comment on the wisdom of building a mosque two blocks away from a place he calls “hallowed ground.”  No, this is manifestly not “one of the finest moments of Obama’s Presidency.”

I really didn’t have a horse in this race.  I figured either that the mosque was inevitable, and that very local dynamics would determine the ultimate success or failure of the venture, or that further developments – like the gay bar contemplated next door – might hurl the story into unanticipated ironies.  But after the President’s performance on Friday and Saturday, I have to say, Mr. President, a little balance please.  A little more backbone in actually addressing the concerns that animate the substantial majority of Americans who oppose the mosque, and a little less condescension toward the people who elected you, people who really just want from you “not merely tolerance, but respect.”

[Also published at The Daily Caller.]


2 Responses to President Obama’s Ground Zero Game-Playing

  1. Saladin says:

    The one thing actively missing from the Obama administration is a sense of leadership. Is there nothing he’ll stick to his guns for? Is there nothing he will take a stand on?

    An excellent post. I enjoy well-written critiques and this certainly counts.

  2. Pingback: Finding and Binding to Moderate Muslims « The Prince and The Little Prince

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