It was a big old, steaming pile of political mess the president stepped in this weekend -- a surprising mistake for a politician who once seemed so savvy about negotiating tough public issues.
But as I watch cable news pundits and opportunistic politicians hysterically decry the notion that our chief executive supported the right of Muslims to build a mosque within two blocks of the 9/11 attacks in New York, I wonder:
Isn't this what the terrorists wanted in the first place?
Sure, job one was to kill Americans, and job two was to make us fear homeland violence the way an Israeli might worry about a rocket launched from the West Bank. But one of the goals Islamic extremists have always had is to turn moderate Muslims against the West; to show them that we cannot be trusted to treat them fairly or consider their freedoms.
And they have had no better partner in that awful dance than our own religious fundamentalists. Extremists on any side understand each other well; terrorists understand that, despite all the talk of respecting Islam, some Christians need little urging to see our current conflicts and the holiest of holy wars, with little empathy or patience for tolerance.
This is why, in some ways, building a mosque within blocks of 9/11 would be the ultimate act of insurgency against those who hurt us worst.
They want us to turn Muslims in the U.S. into an oppressed minority. They want moderate Islamists to feel persecuted and unable to exercise their free rights. They want opportunities to recruit disappointed Muslims reduced to second-class status -- in the way France has seen its huge, often disaffected population of Muslims become a promising recruitment tool for extremists who note women can't even wear their hijab headgear in state schools.
A mosque within sight of the former World Trace Center site, especially if it is dedicated to peace, would seem an important antidote to that strategy; a pointed punch in the face to those who bet on Americans' worst instincts. Of course, as legendary showbiz opportunist P.T. Barnum probably pointed out at some point in his life, nobody ever went broke betting on American hardheadedness.
Salon magazine documented how the controversy over this mosque project, which was developed with the knowledge and approval of city officials, didn't kick in until conservative-oriented blogs and newspapers began shrill criticism of the notion, which coincidentally grew louder as the GOP looked for controversial issues to hammer Democrats in the approaching midterm elections.
A spin through TV coverage Monday showed outlets feasting on the conflict during a slow news season like a starving man at a smorgasbord. On MSNBC, a panel of mostly liberal commentators decried the controversy; on the morning news shows, conservative politicians were trying to square the notion that Muslims have all the religious freedom they want, as long as they don't exercise that one right to build a mosque too close to the former World Trade Center site.
But media-fed political food fights to build ratings aren't a surprise. Neither is opportunistic efforts by politicians to distract with a controversy which won't affect 99 percent of the country's population, just to find an issue which might drive angry voters to the polls.
What I don't understand, is how President Obama stepped in the middle of it all. Surely he knew politicians and pundits would seize on his statement Friday that "as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have 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," as support of the mosque project. Surely he understood that cynical opportunists would twist his words and passionate advocates on either side of this contentious issue would hear what they wanted?
Surely he understood that hedging on the statement a day later, refusing to comment on the "wisdom" of building the mosque close to the WTC site, would only serve to anger the people who weren't upset by his seeming support a day earlier?
In the bubble of the presidency, Obama seems to have forgotten how quickly nuance is lost in a hard-fought election and how quickly people will give in to fear and hysteria. Frankly, I agree with those who say our president had no choice but to support the mosque project -- mostly because its a legal project and doing so sends the strongest message possible that our current wars against Islamic terrorists are not wars against Islam.
If we really believe our war isn't with Islam, its our only choice. Instead, we have gotten hedged statements and hysterical protests aimed at telling Muslims that, in New York after 9/11, there are some lines you can't cross, legal or not.
Just like the attackers wanted.
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