The ongoing controversy over whether or not Muslims should build a mosque near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan fits conveniently into a false narrative — perpetuated by biased reporting and misinformation — that confrontation, not dialogue and cooperation, is the hallmark of America’s relationship with Muslim Americans and the Islamic world. It also exposes the fallacy that political correctness and pandering to Muslims are the best way to build bridges to them.
Let me say up front that I agree with those, including many Muslims, who believe that building the “Cordoba House” mosque adjacent to the former World Trade Center complex is not a good idea. The pain it would cause to the families and friends of 9/11 victims and those who empathize with them would do more harm than Muslims that seek to build bridges could offset.
Americans that oppose the mosque certainly have as much freedom to speak out against it as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and other Muslims associated with the project have to build it. Accusing people that oppose it of bigotry and political motivation, without evidence of either, is wrong.
Having said that, I believe it is unfortunate that the mosque controversy has gotten out of hand. It would have been better for everyone had this dispute not become enmeshed in US domestic politics. Whatever the truth, it too easily becomes obscured in the heat of partisan political debate.
President Barack Obama’s comments to a group of Muslims during a Ramadan dinner at the White House last week, however, turned the mosque controversy into a national political issue. That certainly did him no good, and it made it more difficult for Imam Rauf, if indeed he’s the bridge builder our State Department says he is, to find a face-saving way to select another location to build the mosque.
Obama’s prepared remarks, widely interpreted by Americans as supporting the building of the mosque, also were widely interpreted by Muslims as chiding Americans who oppose it for their intolerance. The backlash in America to the president’s comments was instantaneous.
By itself, the president’s statement might not have been so controversial; but Americans can’t separate what he said at the Ramadan dinner and the approach he’s taken toward Islam for the past fourteen months.
If there is a “teachable moment” here it’s that excessive, America-deprecating use of the “bully pulpit” in an attempt to build bridges to Muslims at home and the Islamic world at large is the wrong approach for the president to take. From his June 2009 Cairo speech to last week’s Ramadan dinner remarks, President Obama has spoken out on America’s relationship with the Islamic world in just such a manner. He has nothing measurable to show for it, however, other than polls in which nearly one quarter of Americans incorrectly believe that he is a Muslim. Meanwhile, Muslims around the world are disappointed that he has not delivered on the implicit promises they believe he made to them.
America’s relationship with Muslim-Americans is no different than its relationship with any of its citizens. Muslim-Americans enjoy the full benefits and protections of the US Constitution, including freedom of religion and freedom of speech. There are over 100 mosques in New York City alone. Muslims are better integrated into American society than they are into any European society.
America’s relationships with Muslim countries around the world are more complex and multifaceted. Like all foreign relations, they are based on mutual and divergent self-interests. America has strong and vibrant political, economic and military relationships throughout the Islamic world. How popular America is with the Muslim man or woman on the street does not reflect how respected we are by those in positions of authority.
It’s true that a great many Muslims didn’t like George W. Bush because of the way he reacted to 9/11. Like President Harry S. Truman, he did what he believed was right and, in doing so, damaged his popularity at home and abroad. But claims about how much damage Bush did to US relationships with Muslim countries are grossly overstated. At home, Bush went out of his way to tell Muslims that he respected Islam, without criticizing America.
It’s true that America’s support for Israel has put America in a difficult position. Most Muslims believe that Washington is too supportive of Israel and not evenhanded enough in the peace process. But our moral obligation to the Israeli people demands that we not allow those who would destroy them — Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran — to succeed. Nevertheless, both Jews and Muslims recognize that the United States is essential to a “just and lasting peace.”
If we truly want to maintain the bridges we have already built to the Islamic world and construct new ones, it’s time to place the emphasis on what America has done, imperfectly but effectively, for decades — pursue mutual interests through skilled diplomatic dialogue and cooperation. And we must succeed in Afghanistan as we are succeeding in Iraq. At the same time, we must avoid political correctness and pandering to Muslims. Political correctness and pandering will only create false expectations, give extremists something to exploit, and stifle the productive discussion and debate that are essential to better mutual understanding.
We must both identify our enemies in the Islamic world for whom and what they are — radical Islamist-Jihadist terrorists — and reach out to Muslims who understand the damage Islamist-Jihadism does to Islam and the world. The most effective way to do this — and no one says it’s easy — is through frank and honest dialogue and interaction, from the streets of Lower Manhattan to the friendly Muslim capitals of the world.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.