Sometimes public policy disputes become transformed into symbolic conflicts that go to the heart of national identity. The "mosque controversy" was initially a mere zoning question. It is now a symbolic conflict over the place of Muslims in our national life.
As a scholar whose first book was on the Holocaust, I hear echoes of the Dreyfus Affair.
Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was the only Jewish member of the French General Staff in the late 1800s, a time when France was deeply infected with anti-Semitism, and its elites resented the admission of Jews into the higher reaches of French society, including the military.
Dreyfus was appointed to the General Staff in 1893. His appointment, and the advance of other Jewish army officers, evoked strong protests from anti-Semitic French newspapers which sought to whip up fears that Jews were not loyal Frenchmen, and were in fact potential traitors.
In 1894, it was discovered that a French officer was passing secrets to the hated Germans. Dreyfus was accused on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence, and when it appeared that he might be acquitted, leading officers -- including the minister of war -- forged documents to implicate Dreyfus and slipped them to the judges without the knowledge of the defense attorney. Dreyfus had been framed. He was convicted, sentenced to life in prison, publicly stripped of his rank and degraded before crowds shouting "Death to the Jews," and shipped off to Devil's Island.
Convincing evidence surfaced within the military pointing to the innocence of Dreyfus and the guilt of a different, non-Jewish officer. But by now the army had too much at stake to allow this evidence to become public. Eventually, however, the evidence (as well as newly forged anti-Dreyfus materials) leaked, and all of France fell into an uproar over the matter. It became clear that not just the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus was now at stake, but the honor of the military, the role of emancipated Jews in France, and the capacity of France to reach a just verdict.
Demagogic media leaders stoked the fears and prejudices of the French Christian (primarily Catholic) majority throughout the conflict. Images of the Jew as Judas were routinely employed to cast aspersions on the trustworthiness of Dreyfus or any Jew. When one of the anti-Dreyfus forgers killed himself in prison, the anti-Semitic press honored him as a Christ-figure, casting Dreyfus and "the Jews" as betrayers. The French newspaper La Libre Parole and other voices began calling for a massacre of the Jews.
It took until 1906 for the Dreyfus case to be resolved. Only then was his conviction reversed and Dreyfus restored to his rightful position in the military. Holocaust scholars take this case seriously because it anticipated the way Germany and its collaborators and allies turned on the Jews in their midst from 1939-1945. People who had seemingly been integrated into modern European countries were all too easily plucked out of those societies, rejected and dehumanized, and finally sent to their deaths.
The limits of my comparison between the Dreyfus case and the mosque controversy are obvious. But the similarities must also be taken seriously. Those similarities include the identification of an entire religious minority as a threat to the nation, the harmlessness of both Captain Alfred Dreyfus and Imam Abdul Rauf, the role of major media voices in whipping up frenzied national fears, and the questionable capacity of the nation to honor its own legal and moral principles. The other parallel is almost too painful to name: the role of the Christian majority and some of its most vocal and visible leaders in turning the religious "Other" into an object of infamy. In France a hundred years ago, these were Catholic demagogues leading the charge. Today they are mainly Protestant evangelicals.
A close look at the Dreyfus case reveals that its outcome hinged largely on honorable leaders finally resisting demagoguery and standing on higher principle. We have seen such leadership from Mayor Bloomberg of New York and a handful of other leaders.
One of those leaders has been President Barack Obama. He made one forceful stand for the constitutional principle of religious liberty in this case. But he has been very careful. I think I know why. He himself is at risk of being "Dreyfused." In fact, as last week's much-discussed polling pointed out, he is already being Dreyfused on the "Muslim issue." He has been called "Imam Obama" by Rush Limbaugh. One-fifth of the nation thinks he is a Muslim, and in this moment in American public life, that is a dangerously high number. A concerted effort is being made by extremists to "other" him right out of American public life. It is a truly shameful display.
So the president cannot carry the ball on the mosque controversy. It is up to the rest of us to resolve our own budding Dreyfus case before it goes any further.