Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Obama Was Right About the Mosque

Just as he did last year with the fracas over the arrest of friend Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge police, Barack Obama has managed to get himself into a racially charged controversy with no prospect of benefit.

On the merits, Obama was right to stand up for the right of Muslims to build a Mosque. One of the best cases for that comes from George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson. I would add that the demonization of the proposed Mosque couldn’t come at a worse time. In order to effectively check Iran, we need to make sure Sunni Arabs in the Middle East are on our side. Whatever the motives of critics of the Mosque, the move will be seen as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.

There have been some interesting counter-arguments made. Namely, Ground zero should be a sacred place. Just as no German cultural center should be placed at Auschwitz, no Mosque should be placed where the twin towers fell. But this runs into a few problems. First, the Mosque is not literally on Ground Zero. It is some distance away. Second, I wonder if critics of the Mosque would apply this logic in other situations. For example, Timothy McVeigh was a confirmed Catholic. If the Catholic Church proposed building a church close to the Murrah building (where the Oklahoma city bombing took place), would there really be such an uproar? If not, it demonstrates a crucial point. It would show that Americans don’t impute McVeigh’s terrorism onto the whole Catholic Church. An implicit association between Al Qaeda and Islam seems like it drives opposition to the Mosque on some level for some critics. To them, building a Mosque must seem like honoring the murderers who flew planes into buildings.

Third, I think there is a definite difference between the religion of Islam, and a nationality like Japanese and German. That German or Japanese could as easily be a Catholic or a Lutheran. Because a German Lutheran massacred American GIs at Malmedy during the battle of the Bulge, would we say no Lutheran church should be there? If not, then we shouldn’t then use a double standard for Muslims. A number of those who hijacked the planes on 9/11 were Saudi Sunni Muslims. Should their actions prevent a second-generation Shiite who has relatives fighting in the war on terror from being able to build a Mosque where he chooses?

Politically however, weighing in on the debate can’t be good for Obama in the short term. It plays into a conservative critique that Obama is out of step with the average American, and certainly members of the Republican base. People who cheer Obama’s qualified support were likely mostly leftists who would have supported him any way. This can only inspire conservatives who already opposed Obama to double their efforts to take Congress in the midterm elections.

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