Sunday, August 15, 2010

Defending the American Soul

President Obama's defense on Friday night of the right to build the mosque in Manhattan that the Rabid Right have made into an inflammatory issue, has been widely praised for political courage and derided for "insensitivity" today. But how he said it is worth a second look. Here is the key and most widely quoted paragraph:

"But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes 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. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure."

"As a citizen, and as President," says I'm speaking as an American, and as the voice of the United States as a nation, at this moment. "The Writ of our Founders" not only refers to the basis for this principle--the First Amendment to the Constitution, commonly called the Bill of Rights--but in language often used by conservatives--i.e. Founders: nota bene, Glenn Beck.

Then the President immediately returned to the particular--not that particular mosque, but the religion it represents. "And let us always remember who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam – it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion – and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.That is who we are fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms – it is the strength of our values. "

President Obama was speaking at a dinner called an iftar, which breaks the fast commemorating the Muslim Ramadan, a White House event held regularly by President G.W. Bush, and begun (as President Obama noted) by President Thomas Jefferson. As would be typical of the commemoration of any ethnic or religious holiday, the President noted other contributions, including Muslim immigrants in the 19th century, but in today's toxic environment, these became all the more important. The President:

"Today, our nation is strengthened by millions of Muslim Americans. They excel in every walk of life. Muslim American communities—including mosques in all fifty states—also serve their neighbors. Muslim Americans protect our communities as police, firefighters and first responders. Muslim American clerics have spoken out against terror and extremism, reaffirming that Islam teaches that one must save human life, not take it. And Muslim Americans serve with honor in our military. At next week’s iftar at the Pentagon, tribute will be paid to three soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq and now rest among the heroes of Arlington National Cemetery. These Muslim Americans died for the security that we depend upon, and the freedoms that we cherish."

Note that sentence about an iftar at the Pentagon--where in fact there is a mosque. That's right--lots of angst about a proposed mosque two New York City blocks from Ground Zero, but not a word about a mosque inside the other building attacked on that September 11, resulting in the death of Americans.

Why is all this so important? Thanks to the leadership of Sarah Palin and others, the intolerance by the Rabid Right is feverishly spiraling to dangerous lengths, trying to prevent mosques being built not only in Manhattan but elsewhere, with one prominent spokesperson demanding that no mosques be built anywhere in America, and claiming they are all terrorist threats. According to an AFP report, a Florida church has actually scheduled a "Koran-burning" on September 11. And to demonstrate the pervasive xenophobia involved, a Texas Rabid Right congressman took to the House floor to buttress his argument for ending the grant of American citizenship to native borns guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, by spinning a wild tale of terrorist mothers coming to America to have babies, and return them to their terrorist countries to be indoctrinated so that in 20 or 30 years they could return to wreak terrorism on America. The link of the immigration issue and the mosque issue shows their common theme.

And so here's the absolute kicker of President Obama's brief speech, oddly missed in most accounts. The President clearly, forthrightly and eloquently based his support for freedom of religion that includes Muslims on the U.S. Constitution and American civic values. But he ended by referring to a key text and core principle of Christianity:

"And we can only achieve "liberty and justice for all" if we live by that one rule at the heart of every religion, including Islam—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us."

[Photo above: Arriving for a vacation weekend in Florida the morning after this speech. And here's Josh Marshall's take on the second-day story, the attempt to characterize President Obama's position as a contradiction.]

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