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Sohrab Ahmari: Obama and Muslim Americans: Only a Start

20 August 2010 Huffington Post No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

President Obama had every reason not to wade into the heated debate surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Polls show more than two thirds of Americans — a majority of Democrats and most Republicans and independents — are opposed to its construction. With his own party facing tough mid-term elections in November, Obama would have been wiser to avoid the issue altogether. But the President chose the occasion of a White House iftar (a tradition started by George W. Bush, by the way) to speak out in favor of Muslim Americans’ “right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

This was not the first time Obama bucked majority opinion and party interest to stand on principle. On K-12 education, for example, the president has angered the teacher unions and traditional civil rights establishment that make up a significant part of his own base to push for more aggressive reforms. He has also been willing to take the heat from across the political spectrum to pursue an AfPak strategy he believes essential to America’s long-term national security. Most remarkably, he has for the most part refused to embrace short-sighted economic populism, despite the electoral efficacy of rhetorical pitchforks in a time of economic recession.

But as a cultural Muslim, I was particularly inspired by Obama’s principled stance in defense of Muslims’ right to religious freedom in an age of terror.

Since his election to the White House, I had been skeptical about the president’s outreach to Muslims. I was disappointed by the fact that the Administration chose to see one monolithic “Muslim world” where I saw many “Muslim worlds,” including one inhabited by secular and irreverent Muslims such as myself. I found downright silly the president’s apparent conviction that his middle name could, sua sponte, melt away mutual resentments generations in the making. And I was deeply troubled by his willingness, in the name of some dubious geopolitical “realism,” to remain silent or barely audible when it came to civil and human rights in the Middle East and elsewhere. If anything, I felt Obama was not critical enough of Muslim leaders.

My skepticism persists to this day. That said, Obama’s decision to intervene in the mosque debate on the side of tolerance and religious freedom was very much called for. History will vindicate the president’s farsightedness at a time when ugly and, yes, Islamophobic discourse emanating from the Tea Party right has captured part of the national psyche.

This is not to say that Cordoba House, its backers and funders, should not be subjected to close scrutiny. And even if legally futile, the debate surrounding the moral sensitivity of building Cordoba House blocks away from Ground Zero is not an entirely illegitimate one. But casting all Muslim Americans as internal enemies is. And to describe the labels “Muslim” and “American” as mutually exclusive or incompatible only empowers the hate preachers among Muslims and undermines social cohesion in the cities where America’s Muslims congregate. President Obama rightly preferred expending political capital, however precious, over alienating America’s critical Muslim minority.

There was also likely a more practical dimension to Obama’s decision to weigh in. American Muslims are the nation’s best ambassadors to Muslim-majority countries. We are often called upon to defend the values that underpin the Republic, the fundamental decency of our fellow Americans, and the rule of law which has allowed so many of us to thrive and prosper. Yet our work is made that much more difficult by politicians willing to stoop to any rhetorical low in order to garner votes.

The Republican leadership has ominously promised to punish the president and the Democrats over his comments. Attempting to prevent an “iftar-gate” from emerging, Obama has, sadly, walked back some of his earlier remarks. Once the elections are over and the Cordoba House controversy dies down, Obama and his team should have the courage to continue the important conversations it has engendered.

The United States, its government and civil society, must proactively and in a bipartisan manner foster responsible, moderate Muslim leadership. That will involve continuing to defend Muslims’ right to worship here in the United States. But it will also involve recognizing that the mosque is not and should not be the only center of Muslim civic life. Finally — and here’s where the cost of principle really goes up — it will mean taking a principled stance on religious freedom in Muslim societies, including those where not a single church or synagogue is permitted and where secular Muslims like me risk persecution and even death for our beliefs.

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