What’s your reaction to President Obama’s recent statements to the Muslim world that "the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam" and that "we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation"?
Enough Americans feel bad about the Iraq war that they didn’t become upset over President Obama’s apology to the Islamic world. Call it a mea culpa or a sign of more openness, but clearly Obama wants to make amends for the Bush era. His base on the left is ashamed of the war, an incursion that had no justification in fighting against terrorism. Up to 300,000 innocent civilians may have died there. We will never know, given the chaos of the situation after March, 2003, and the absence of official death counts.
Recently Obama has gone even further, telling the Turkish parliament that he considers Islam a great culture that has contributed much to the world. In a daring reference to his family background (daring for a politician who needs public approval, that is), he pointed out that Muslim-American families like his have contributed to our society and will continue to. For some observers — and the entire right wing — these remarks went too far. But when everything is considered, they were necessary.
This President owes his election to the power of words, and the words applied to Islam after 9/11 fill a toxic dump site. The war makers paid lip service to the notion that not all Muslims are terrorists, but they spent their whole energy painting the picture of an Islamic bogeyman, a frightening specter implacably opposed to the U.S., filled with fanatical hatred, and capable of springing appalling attacks anywhere, anytime.
His critics believe that Obama is giving aid and comfort to the enemy no doubt, by apologizing to the Islamic world, but from his perspective he’s beginning to treat Muslims like normal human beings. There was a long period known as the Red Scare in American politics, preceding WW II, when the same tactics were used against anarchists and Communists. Then as now, everyone remotely associated with the Soviet Union was demonized, and the Russians themselves were given all but supernatural powers to infiltrate American society and bring it down. That the McCarthy witch hunts of the Fifties brought to light not a single traitor hasn’t quenched the right wing’s xenophobia, which simply shifted to illegal immigrants and all Muslims.
So while we encourage moderate Muslims to stand up for themselves and speak out against the jihadis (a long-term project that, sadly, shows few signs of succeeding), here at home we have to revive the tradition of tolerance that the Bushies undermined. They seemed incapable of realizing that tolerance, and the civil rights that go with it, are more important by far than raw patriotism. (Notice that no one has ever said that toleration was the last refuge of scoundrels.) Obama walks a fine line, trying to preserve both patriotism and tolerance, a mission we should all support. Does the Islamic world, as the source of so much trouble and turmoil, not to mention so much backwardness in women’s rights and democratic freedom, deserve anyone’s apology? In their own eyes they do, and America should be strong enough to offer one. There’s error and wrongdoing on both sides. It’s no shame to be the first to admit it.
Published in the Washington Post