Sunday, August 15, 2010

Political Courage

Well, that didn't take long.

Yesterday I was congratulating President Obama and slapping high-fives for his Friday night statement on the Cordoba center and for having the political courage to directly engage such a hot-button issue (on the heels of Michael Bloomberg's powerful speech early this month). Today I'm just shaking my head.

Said Obama on Friday:
But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. 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. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure.
Good stuff.  Ah, but yesterday he further "clarified" with this:
"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."
And, if you want to get technical, he's got it on points. However, the subtextual meaning underlying both statements is also pretty hard to miss. One is a forceful affirmation, and one is a hasty retreat. Now, I applaud the president for reaffirming the principle of religious tolerance, but even hosts on Fox News concede that it's sort of his job.  Of course Muslims have the right to build at that location, I don't think even the people opposed are arguing that -- but the nasty, hateful, and even violent stuff from politico and populi alike is what requires a reset.  If Obama remains gun-shy about threading that needle, then I'm not even sure what to say.

What the critics are engaged in is collective vilification, delegitimization and incitement against Muslims in the United States and they are doing it deliberately and for political purposes. This is what needs to be recognized and confronted and sadly I do not see the president or any other senior politicians in the United States doing that. As midterm elections approach this November, I predict the level of anti-Muslim incitement is going to increase even beyond what we already see. Who is going to stand up to it? 
Of course, as I've mentioned previously, all of this is merely symptomatic of a much more pervasive political calculus on the part of the GOP aimed very specifically at sowing the seeds of distrust in hopes of reaping political gains, as explicated by Politico:
New York's beleaguered Republicans, seeing an opening, have seized and driven the mosque issue, and Roth and other mainstream figures have worked to insulate it from more radical anti-Islamic voices, like blogger Pamela Geller, who might marginalize the cause.
Indeed, following the Obama statement of Friday, Newt Gingrich again fed the trolls by equating the project with "putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.” This on top of it already being referred to as a "monument to terror" and a "victory flag" for Osama Bin Laden. Sure, that kind of talk is pro forma, but (per Sarah Palin) it's the center that's a provocation. Got it. This is the kind of toxic rhetoric that's been allowed to crystallize and ferment into conventional wisdom, until finally we've arrived at a point where we're not even questioning the premises underlying such assumptions.

As Chris Martinez sums up:
...the only way that someone could ever confuse the Cordoba Initiative with radical, militant Islam is if that person thought that Islam itself is inseparable from terrorism or terrorist sympathies (or had been misled by demagogues to believe the Cordoba House aligned itself with radical Islam). And, incidentally, if a very small handful of radicals who call themselves believers in a religion can cause that religion to stand for the terrible things the radicals do and believe, then, well, Christianity apparently stands for the murder of doctors, the preachings of David Koresh, the beliefs and deeds of Tim McVeigh, the goals of the Huntaree militia....
Second, the site of the proposed Cordoba House is not "at" or "on" Ground Zero. When considering whether the location of a supposed provocative act is essentially inseparable from the initial tragedy, we have to take all contexts into account - not just physical location, but the nature and characteristics of the area. As many others have pointed out, the Cordoba House imam has been a member of the community since long before 9/11, as have many other Muslims.
Thus, the twin arguments being proffered about both "location" and "respect" are revealed for the cynical ploys that there are, in turn giving us a much clearer view of the engines that helped drive this discussion into the ditch. When I first began covering this topic back in May, I mentioned how the expressed intent behind the center was "about creating a physical space where Islam's moderate voices can also be given a face. It's somewhere those with questions can ask them, and those with answers can present them."

Well, I don't know if that's even possible anymore. Even an eventual (inevitable?) legal and procedural win for the Cordoba planners will be a Pyrrhic one at best, as the unholy union of outright bigotry coupled with sustained political strategy will have allowed those seeking to poison the well with fear and hate to claim their victory flag. Mayor Bloomberg understands this. Rep. Jerry Nadler understands this.  President Obama apparently doesn't.

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