We Cannot Afford to Be Tolerant Towards Islam When Our President is a Muslim: The Rise of Islamophobia Under the Obama Administration

Is there a connection between the increasingly anti-Muslim tenor of American political discourse and the persistent rumors of Obama’s secret Islamic faith?

There’s no way to empirically prove the connection that I can think of, but I do wonder if the paranoia over Obama’s religious beliefs and location of birth have contributed to the current hostility towards Islam, culminating in the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.

Under Bush, the hysteria over Muslims as a whole was not as prominent. The hysteria over Muslim terrorists was pretty high, yes, but there was a firm distinction drawn between “Muslims” and “terrorists.” Bush’s political message was, in general, focused on outreach to and inclusion of the Muslim majority while characterizing Al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups as “a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam”:

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.

For Obama, however, such inclusiveness and tolerance comes at a much higher political cost and meets with greater resistance and anger. Although he did publicly defend the building of Park51 — a step I was surprised to see him take, and do give him credit for — it came at a very high cost in terms of the poll numbers.

Bush could defend the rights of Muslims and be thought of a just and respectful man for it; but no one believed Bush was secretly born in a Muslim nation, and he was overwhelmingly known to be a Christian. He also took a hawkish approach to foreign policy and national security, and had the Republican branding on both those points to back him up.

Although Obama is no dove — and, if anything, he has simply continued the national security strategy of the previous administration — he is viewed as weaker on national security by default for being a Democrat. He has done a good job of giving his critics very little ammo on this front, though, and by and large the “Obama is a weakling dove” meme hasn’t taken hold, because Obama’s policies haven’t given the media any chance to spin him out as a coward who won’t use force when it’s require. However, the “Obama is an Anti-American Islamosocialist” meme is out in full force, and it polarizes any political issue that touches on Islam.

In fact, 1 out of every 5 Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. And if you narrow the sample down to Republicans, a whopping 1 in the 3 believe he is. This is stupidly, crazy high.

And in an America where nearly 20% of the population thinks their president is a “secret Muslim,” there is less room for tolerance and nuance in political messaging. I do suspect that the fact Obama is president is a large part of why — compared to eight or nine years ago — expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment have increased and been met with greater acceptance, and I suspect it is also why the Ground Zero Mosque controversy came to exist at all.


A Mosque in Manhattan

The 9/11 terrorists did not carry out a strategic assault aimed at weakening America’s military capabilites, but instead made an attack on the abstract concept of “Americaness” itself. The Twin Towers were the chosen target not because the World Trade Center was literally or factually involved in the United State’s perceived transgressions, but because they were an iconic symbol of America as a whole.

To the terrorists, it was irrelevant that the towers were full of people who were just going about their daily lives, 99.9% of whom did not have the slightest thing to do with America’s involvement in the Middle East beyond the fact they mostly happened to share a nationality with those who were.

I think that’s what kills me the most about the absurd sturm und drang that has sprung up around the construction of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Ignoring the most absurd parts of the debate — (1) The Muslim center is not actually in the Ground Zero area, but is several blocks away, and (2) Hello, anyone remember the First Amendment? — it’s the way that the anti-Mosque faction has adopted the same narrow mindset as the terrorist groups that is the most bothersome. For both groups, the thinking goes something like this:

The Twin Towers were a prominent symbol of the idea of America; certain American initiatives abroad were wrongful interferences with the affairs of other nations or were perceived as such by radical terrorist groups; ergo, the Twin Towers should be destroyed. A mosque is a prominent symbol of Islam; certain Islamic groups carried out horrific attacks on the Twin Towers; ergo, mosques are prohibited from ever existing in lower Manhattan.

The logic, or rather lack thereof, is the same in both cases.

That prominent American figures have bought into this political synecdochism is embarrassing and wrong-headed, and is costing us a rather excellent opportunity to show the world who the better man is. Americans have a Constitutional right to build a Mosque wherever construction of a similar structure would be permitted, but this goes beyond basic legal rights; the idea that the Cordoba House is to be punished merely because it happens to have the same descriptive label — “Muslim” — as some people who once did something bad to the U.S. is a fundamentally un-American belief. In contrast, I cannot imagine a better symbol for the American ideal than that of a Mosque, quietly co-existing with its neighbors, close to where the Twin Towers once stood.