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Huffington Post: Cordoba House and Religious Freedom

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When Nancy Pelosi said the power and money backing the anti-Muslim protests in New York and elsewhere should be investigated, she had in mind the simplest of political questions. Who benefits? In this case, who benefits from a spectacle of words and images that suggest that right-wing populism in America has now taken a definitively anti-Muslim tone? The message of these protests against more than one mosque is that the fight to defeat al Qaeda has become a war against Islam.

No American is helped by that change of view. It exposes us to an enlarged hostility from the Arab world, heated by suspicion and legitimate fear. The only people who stand to gain are those who have an interest in setting the United States against the Arab countries of the Middle East. Who would that be? Pelosi has sharper instincts than the other leaders of her party. Her suspicion of the sudden fortune that may awaken a “grassroots” movement has been vividly confirmed by Jane Mayer’s recent report on the funding of the Tea Party by the billionaire Koch brothers.

The worst damage of the crowd actions of the summer has come from the faintheartedness of those who knew better, but declined to denounce them. The crowd has been permitted to go on believing it is wrong for Muslims to do something the Constitution gives all Americans a right to do. How did this deformation of public feeling begin? The protests against Cordoba House shifted from a parochial to a national issue on the impetus of two statements. The first came from Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, on July 30. Foxman put the ADL on the record in sympathy with the protest against the planned community center and mosque. Hisstatement conceded the right of the planners, but defended the prejudice, that is, the rooted feelings of the non-Muslims in this case, regardless of reason, right, or law.

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Note that the tenor of the ADL statement was not political or moral, but sentimental. The planners had a right to build where the legally designated authorities agreed they could; but the ADL hoped they would not build quite there — out of respect for the feelings of people close to the victims and the sympathy of Americans for those feelings. Notably absent from this moral arithmetic were the Muslim victims of the attack.

President Obama on August 13 affirmed the right of the planners to build at Park51; they were only using, said Obama, the right of religious freedom that belongs to them as it belongs to other Americans. A decent response and the only thing necessary for a president to say.

Yet Obama spoilt his effect by extending his remarks. He chose, unnecessarily, to legitimate the religious language of the protesters by asserting that “Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.” The words “hallowed ground” are familiar to Americans because Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, said the soldiers themselves who fought in that battle had hallowed the field, “far above our poor power to add or detract”; the soldiers had hallowed that ground by risking their lives to advance the work of liberty. If Ground Zero is hallowed ground, it must be because the victims were soldiers in a war (they did not know they were, but they were). But what war? A war against al Qaeda, or against Islam? That is the question the demagogues behind the protest are seeking to confuse; and by glibly adopting their piety as an earnest of his sentiments, the president gave the anti-Muslim cause a boost he could have withheld. Obama further diluted his elementary defense of the rights guaranteed by the first amendment when he walked back his statement the following day and averred he had meant only to recall the right of the planners to build; he did not mean to endorse the wisdom of the choice of a site.

The “wisdom” theme of the Obama walk-back was soon taken up by Harry Reid (to shore up the bigot vote in a close election), and by Howard Dean (to prove his sagacity as a moderate). The issue has since become a source of intimidation to Democrats and of jeering challenge by Republicans. The odd thing is, almost no one mentions the Constitution. The first amendment is out there; it says something definite on the subject. This is not a matter that anyone would have dared to argue about in 1965, 1990 or 2005. The clarion words of the text, “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” admit no ambiguity at all. This fact has not escaped the attention of the Fox radio hosts. “Now he mentions the Constitution,” said Glenn Beck last week of Obama. And Limbaugh: “Of course they have the right” — as if it were the right of a man to keep an anaconda in his bathtub. Even in the face of such disclaimers, Democrats would rather not defend the Constitution in an election year.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Callah

    August 30, 2010 at 6:42 PM

    Why after almost 10 years are the citizens of the United States all of a sudden freaking out about Muslim people?
    Could it be that in the US the Muslim is now the new scapegoat because if the Reps don’t have some enemy to rabble-rouse
    they wont make it back into office and might have to get a “real job” if they can find one. I wouldn’t blame every Muslim country in the world if the shut out the US because of their actions. I wonder how happy Sarah Palin will be when she has no gas to put in her car, because she shot off her mouth one too many times. Or Glenn Beck can’t fly down to South America for his medical care because there are no planes flying due to no fuel. Treating all Muslim people like this is like calling all Christians ” Polygamist” because Fundy Mormons believe in the practice. The founding fathers of this country are rolling in their graves these days, I’m sure.

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