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Joshua Treviño: Why the President’s Partisans Talk Down Islam

1 September 2010 Huffington Post No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

Among the more pernicious rumors swirling about Obama are those dealing with his Muslim connections. Or so we’re told: the persons who denounce — and not coincidentally promulgate — these rumors are generally the same ones who loudly assert that there is nothing wrong whatsoever with Muslim connections per se. They’re right about that. (And if they’re wrong, I’m in trouble, having worked in much of the Muslim world myself.) So what to make of their alarm that others believe things that, were they themselves to believe them, would be perfectly benign? It stems from their conviction that those beliefs in others are intrinsically malign: a strange, stunted and unintended variant on Straussian practice that tells us vastly more about them than it does about the American people or Islam.
How did we come to this pass? When did the President’s Islamic connections turn from virtue to vice? Not too far in the past, he and his supporters thought them virtues indeed — and spent much time telling us so.
We’re a long way from the 2007-2008 campaign-era celebrations of the President’s Islamic heritage, which was once extolled in the opinion pages of the New York Times. (This led, in July 2008, to Pew finding that 12% of Americans believed the President actually was Muslim — and that this belief only really mattered to self-identified Democrats.) We’re even further from the then-newly inaugurated President’s careful noting of his Muslim family to Al-Arabiya — and his declaration that his “job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people.”

And we’re still further from the President’s personalized paean to Islam in his much-touted June 2009 address in Cairo. The White House’s efforts to deliberately link the person of the President with Islam were noted by the press at home and abroad, and were generally lauded: here — we understood the message to be — is a President who is a citizen of the world, understands the civilization we’re not actually clashing with, etc., etc.

Whether or not one agrees with the resultant policies, no reasonable person would object to any of this. It has the virtue of being truthful about the President’s remarkable upbringing, and it does go some way toward explaining his principles and their evolution. (That explanation is presumably important to a man who produced two memoirs by age 45.) When we look for the root of the belief that the President has some affiliation with Islam, we need look no further than the President, who spent much of his campaign and his first year in the White House explicitly drawing that line.

It is against this background that the left’s horror that the messaging apparently worked must be viewed. The latest update to the aforementioned July 2008 poll came out just two weeks back, and it found the number who believe the President to be Muslim to be meaningfully higher, havingjumped from 11% in March 2009 to 18% in July-August 2010. What happened between the two polls? Alarmed liberals point out that worsening economic conditions and the degeneration of public discourse happened, and they’re right on the first count. But this isn’t the whole story: the public culmination of the President’s Islamic-themed outreach throughout the first half of 2009also happened, and it surely can’t be dismissed as a possible causative factor. Indeed, as theNational Journal‘s Reid Wilson noted, “The biggest jumps among those who now say Obama is Muslim came among those with the best educations and the highest salaries“: in other words, exactly the demographic segments likely to pay attention to the news and White House messaging. Though there is a correlation between people who disapprove of the President and people who think he’s Muslim, there is also by now a correlation between people who disapprove of the President and people who are American. In other words, Obama-as-Muslim arose in the first instance because of Obama, and it neither explains nor is wholly caused by his unpopularity.

None of this is to say that the Obama-Islamic connection is no longer useful to the left. Though it is now routinely denounced when invoked, it remains a totem of their worldly superiority. (The effect of this on American Muslims must be deeply annoying at the very best: they must contend with the right-wing fringe and the left-wing mainstream both engaging in rhetoric premised upon their religion being ipso facto negative.) Whereas before it signified their leader’s cosmopolitan exposure and understanding, now it signifies their opponents’ provincial bigotry and ignorance. This is just as well from the standpoint of the partisan hack, for whom the attack is preferable to the defense. And it explains the bizarre media flap over Republicans, shari’a, and the President of the past 24 hours.

Consider the following three headlines from major media outlets:

  • Poll: Majority Of GOP Believes Obama Sympathizes With Islamic Fundamentalism, Wants Worldwide Islamic Law,” Sam Stein, Huffington Post.
  • Newsweek Poll: Republicans Think Obama ‘Probably’ Wants To Impose Islamic Law,” Eric Kleefeld, TalkingPointsMemo.
  • Majority of GOP thinks Obama wants to impose Islamic Law?]” Adam Serwer,Washington Post.
  • All three of these headlines are false.

    The poll that Stein, Kleefeld and Serwer refer to is this Newsweek poll (PDF), conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, in which Question 24 asks the following:

    “Some people have alleged that Barack Obama sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world. From what you know about Obama, what is your opinion of these allegations?”

    The results included 52% of Republican respondents answering that this statement was “Definitely True” or “Probably True,” and from this, the usual figures on the left were off and running. Riffing off the headlines above, CAP’s Matthew Yglesias declared that “52% of Republicans think Obama probably wants to impose worldwide Islamic law,” a statement echoed by Markos Moulitsas. Pandagon’s Jesse Taylor avowed that “52% of Republicans think Obama wants Islamic fundamentalists to win.” Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch (who really ought to be a cut above the other figures) incredulously asked whether “52% of Republicans think Obama wants to impose Sharia?” All quite damning, and quite disturbing.

    Except that’s not what the poll said.

    Al Jazeera English’s Qatar-based Gregg Carlstrom was the first to point out that theNewsweek/Princeton question was so poorly worded as to render its results useless. “The wording of the poll is vague,” wrote Carlstrom, “Basically anyone who thinks Obama ‘sympathizes w/Islamists’ would have answered yes.” Carlstrom is correct: this is a badly phrased poll question that asks whether the President “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists,” and then goes on to note that the “Islamic fundamentalists” in question are the ones “who want to impose Islamic law around the world.” What it does not do is make explicit whether or not the “[imposition of] Islamic law around the world” is the same as the aforementioned “goals.” This matters, and to understand why is to understand the difference between rigorous and sloppy polling, with this question an example of the latter.

    As it happens, the President does share many goals with Muslims who believe in shari’a and its expansion, and it’s not a slander upon him to say it. He laid out many of those goals explicitly in his June 2009 Cairo address: among the ones he specifically mentioned are a Palestinian state, the elevation of Islam to a co-equal status with Christianity and Judaism in American and Western heritage, opposition to Israeli settlements, opposition to European and secularist restrictions on Islamic expression, and the expansion of democratic processes in the Islamic world itself. Anyone hearing the Newsweek/Princeton question, and having a passing familiarity with the President’s own words and the aspirations of Islamists would — as Al Jazeera’s Carlstrom noted — have to answer “Definitely True.”

    Is this a bad thing? Not really. Most Americans probably disagree with most of these propositions, but none of them are beyond the pale of civic discourse.

    What would indisputably be a bad thing is if the President actually wanted shari’a imposed worldwide, or if 52% of Republicans believed that he does. But the President doesn’t want that, and the Newsweek/Princeton poll doesn’t establish that a single person — not one — believes it. It is impossible to believe that none of the left-wing commentaters, who make their living off the public discourse and its methods, grasp this.

    This is where the tragedy comes in — and it’s not Republicans who suffer. As the President’s Islamic connections transformed from a perceived positive to a perceived negative in the course of 2009-2010, his partisans didn’t skip a beat in exploiting them — only now as a thing to be defended against rather than promoted. Their rush to dishonest exploitation of the Newsweek/Princeton poll is a baleful example of where they’ve gone. A group sincerely interested in defending Muslim Americans — who could use a bit of that nowadays — would not willfully promote a false narrative in which empathizing with their co-religionists was presented as an evil. But when it came to a choice between attacking partisan foes or doing right by an embattled minority, they went after the Republicans with abandon.

    And that says worse things about them than a Muslim association ever could.

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