Conceptually correct, politically tone deaf

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-18-10

President Barack Obama dithered when it came to the question of building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. In that problematic-for-a-president-but-perfectly- professorial-way of his, Obama initially framed the issue as a question of liberty, saying “This is America and our commitment to freedom must be unshakable.”

A day later, backpedalling from the firestorm his remarks ignited, Obama posed the Ground Zero mosque as a question of propriety, saying: “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.”

Unfortunately, once again, Obama stumbled by seemingly embracing both sides of a debate, thereby alienating almost everybody invested in the issue. Initially, conservatives grumbled that he failed to defend America – and the 9/11 survivor families – against an Islamic affront. Twenty-four hours later, liberals groaned as
he retreated.

Yet, Obama was conceptually correct if politically tone-deaf. Government bias in favor of freedom of religion should be so strong it butts out of the issue, neither preventing nor facilitating the building of the mosque. At the same time, the Muslim community should be sensible enough to back down, for its own sake – as rumors suggest it may finally be willing to do.

Dwight Eisenhower warned his successor John F. Kennedy that only the tough issues end up on the president’s desk, and this is one tough issue. It pits a community’s fundamental freedom to worship where it chooses against the fact that people acting in the name of that community committed mass murder on that site. When facing this kind of impasse, rather than invoking the Talmudic principle of “teiku” – it is a tie — I invoke the baseball principle of “tie goes to the runner.” In a clash of liberty versus sensibility, I still prefer to see the government erring on the side of liberty and the people swallowing their discomfort, rather than risking religious liberty.

I WRITE this well aware many Islamists would view a Ground Zero Mosque as a monument of Muslim triumphalism. I do not believe the choice of location is benign, given how many mosques have been built on land sacred to others, and how in Jerusalem alone the golden Dome of the Rock is one of many Islamic holy places purposely positioned to dwarf a Jewish holy site. Moreover, I am disgusted that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf the alleged moderate behind this initiative, has said: “The US and the West must acknowledge the harm they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end,” refuses to recognize Hamas as a terrorist group, and said, when discussing 9/11, that “we [Americans] have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”

As a result, the ideal outcome would be for the American government and people to allow the mosque and for the Muslim community to seek a different location. That would create the kind of monument to mutuality we need in this world; that would build the kind of bridge Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf claims to desire. Democracy requires self- restraint and self-policing by both the minority and the majority, to weave a web of mutuality, civility, community. A constant assertion of one’s rights in conflict with communal sensibilities generates social stress. By contrast, occasional strategic concessions build goodwill, as does taking responsibility for one’s own community. In turn-of-the-century New York, when Jews were blamed for feeding a crime wave, Jewish leaders organized undercover operations to bust Jewish criminals. Rather than being defensive, the Jewish community chose to be constructive.

In a different vein, after Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967, Israel’s decision to allow Muslims to control Muslim holy places and Christians to control Christian holy places exemplified the noble democratic instinct to cede some rights, to respect certain sensibilities, rather than maximize the government’s prerogatives. While this arrangement has not worked perfectly, in the blizzard of accusations enveloping Israel, its many jaundiced critics often avoid the question of Muslim and Christian freedom of worship, because of Israel’s generous concessions from the start. If anything, it is the Islamic Waqf which has more frequently behaved badly, notably in moving tons of dirt rich in archaeological evidence from the Temple Mount to garbage dumps outside Jerusalem.

WHATEVER THE ultimate outcome of the mega-controversy over the mega-mosque, Barack Obama’s contribution to the discussion foolishly diminished his already dwindling political capital. The Obama of 2008 – who could seemingly do no wrong – might have brokered a compromise with the Muslim community. At the time, he sang his song of multicultural modern nationalism so beautifully, he might have been able to find that political sweet spot which preserved his liberal principles without enraging conservatives. But Obama the lyrical nationalist has been missing-in-action since he won the presidency.

President Obama has rarely succeeded in pitching a position above the partisan bloodbath – and seems to have stopped trying. Instead, once again, he failed to reassure more traditional American nationalists that he shares their post-9/11 pain, that he understands their justifiable worries about Islamism. Dismissing valid concerns as bigotry – as New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg has done – only creates more tension. And once again, many were left wondering whether President Obama was too naive to see the historic patterns, harsh statements, and horrific crimes of the Islamists fuelling this fiery debate, discomforting even making many of us who would nevertheless support the building of the mosque. Today, in 2010, we turn desperately to the American Muslim community – rather than to the eloquent American president – to save America from this painful predicament.

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at