"What do you think of the mosque in New York?" my Arabic teacher asked me solemnly.
"The controversy is ridiculous," I answered. "The notion that building a community center serving Muslims could offend the memory of those who died on 9/11..." I trailed off, my Arabic insufficient to articulate my disgust at the debate raging 6000 miles away.
He appeared relieved. Sometimes when he asks me to clarify puzzling points of American culture, my answer surprises him. The day before, he had asked, "How could the US provide $200 million for Israel's war on Gaza in January 2009 and now wants to host peace talks?" I answered that the US believes that Israel had practiced self-defense against terrorists, but that today peace is possible. He stared at me blankly.
In the case of the "mosque in New York", or Park51, my teacher might have worried that despite my apparent commitment to the Middle East--as manifested by living here and spending hours each day studying Arabic with him--I might harbor some latent American belief that the freedom of religion does not extend to Muslims. I believe I convinced him that not all Americans oppose a Muslim becoming president (only a third of us do).
He seems to have given up trying to understand the psyche of American society, which is capable of declaring itself the freest in the world, and then delineating that freedom to a specific group of traditionally enfranchised citizens. (A practice that has lost the GOP the support of traditionally conservative Muslim and Latino voters.)
Like most Yemenis, he has stopped asking why the US continues to send military support to his government to fight terrorism, despite its acknowledged position as one of the world's most corrupt and ineffective. He is accustomed to a government that is preparing to once again change its constitution in order to officially erase the head of state's 32 years in power and re-"elect" him.
My teacher, and all those trapped in dictatorial regimes, used to look to America as proof that the noble values that so often decorate a country's founding documents can also extend to that country's policies. That the cynicism with which Yemen labels itself "The only democracy in the Gulf" does not apply to all democratic governments. He used to trust that a nation's laws and constitution can hold a higher authority than any fleeting politician or zeitgeist.
His faith in America's commitment to our Constitution was shaken by the Bush years. Guantanamo detainees were granted habeas corpus in 2004 by the Supreme Court; a moment of triumph for the rule of law. Yet similar to Yemen, the executive branch holds ultimate power, and the prisoners remained untried. Today 180 prisoners remain in Guantanamo, most of them Yemeni.
He learned to expect the same behavior from the Bush White House that he sees every day from Yemen's presidential palace: profiteering from the spoils of war, heedless waste of national resources, a declining education system and a government deaf to external advice. Still, he believed that, like Yemenis, Americans themselves were good people held hostage by their leader. The election of Obama confirmed his confidence that Americans were determined to reinstate the principles that have elicited international admiration for the past 224 years.
This morning he brought up the subject again, having learned that Obama had rescinded his initial support for Park51 in the face of vitriolic Islamophobia. I tried to explain that while the First Amendment remains in effect, some of the criticism is understandable, given the sensitive nature of Ground Zero.
He shook his head, "Where is the freedom?" he asked.
He is right. Our country is hi-jacked by religious extremists, who in their bigoted self-righteousness would find their closest ideological cousins in Al Qaeda. But I am most disappointed in Obama, the leader whose speech in Cairo last year reassured Muslims all over the world that the US does not hate them. (Apparently he was wrong.) Regardless of Fox News and Glenn Beck, the US president is under oath to uphold our country's laws and Constitution. As Samuel Adams said, "The freedoms of our civil Constitution are worth defending at all hazards...It will bring a mark of everlasting infamy on the present generation...if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, or to be cheated out of them by the artifices of designing men."
The fact that the attack on Park51 has further alienated a quarter of the human population represents a foolish error. The disregard for the First Amendment however, presents more serious repercussions. Good PR can do wonders, abandoning our Constitution is harder to rectify.