Waiting for the Preacher: Obama’s America in World Religious Context
Remarks before the U.S Studies Centre
University of Sydney
Good evening, everyone. How are you? Thank you for that more than generous introduction, and thanks for throwing such a large welcoming party for my first-ever visit to Australia. Forgive me for thinking of it that way, but I have always known I would feel at home in Australia because I have family here, you see. I don’t where they are, but they’re here somewhere, for I grew up hearing from my Irish-born grandmother the story of the parting of my paternal great-grandfather from his brothers and sisters in the Port of Cork at the time of the Great Hunger. My great-grandfather was to stay in Ireland to look after his aged parents. His brothers and sisters had been given cheap passage, some to Australia, some to America, but they were otherwise penniless and knew that this was the last time they would ever see one another, and so they held what some have called an “Immigration Wake,” for this was a parting almost worse than death. The family name, now—the family name was a bit unusual, a bit out of the way, you know, perhaps originally French, conceivably aristocratic…. It was Murphy. So, if there’s a Murphy in the house, I am counting on you, brother, to clap extra hard.
the context: religion…and immigration and race
Now on to the topic announced for this evening: “Waiting for the Preacher: Obama’s America in World Religious Context.” And let me begin by quoting the little précis or placard paragraph that at least some of you will have seen already:
“Bill Clinton went to war to rescue Kosovar Muslims from Serbian Catholics and dreamed of reconciling Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews. George W. Bush left office embroiled in a war whose central challenge became reconciling Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites to one another. Strange errands, these, for a pair of ardently declared American Protestants! Now comes President Barack Obama, fathered by a Kenyan Muslim and raised for significant middle years by his atheist mother and a Muslim stepfather in Jakarta. Accused during his election campaign (and still) of being a crypto-Muslim, the man seems to send religious messages before he even opens his mouth. But what about that celebrated mouth? The language of “clash of civilizations” and “war on terror” has been replaced by—well, by what exactly? What is the religious world waiting to hear from a leader both acclaimed and mocked as a preacher? Or has the world already received its answer?”
I shall do my best this evening to follow through on the promise that that announcement made. We’re living in a new world of emotionally charged conflicts unlike those we’ve been accustomed to think about, and I want to spend some time talking about the emotional estrangement some of us feel in this new world and how that sense of estrangement can back up into the tasks of government and international relations. I want to allow myself to risk introducing emotion and intuition into a realm where the professionals confine themselves to more empirically measurable considerations of guns, dollars, and votes. I do so because emotion and intuition count so heavily in the strange and estranging new world where the task of religious peacemaking has fallen now repeatedly to, of all unlikely people, the chief executive of a country that itself has no national religion and, for that matter, legally bars its chief executive from taking religious sides at home. Domestic custom and expectations now firmly bolster American law in this regard, yet overseas things seem to have been rather different ever since the United States forced the Emperor Hirohito to renounce his divinity.
So, yes, the religious context in which international diplomacy takes place has been changing, American presidents have found themselves forced to deal with the change, American activity abroad has necessarily its reverberations at home, and these domestic reverberations lately seem to be growing louder and more ominous. That’s our central subject this evening and the announced subject. But let me add two other unannounced topics to that one, like specials not on the menu that the waiter tells you about before you order. These two questions are the perennial American race question and the perennial American immigration question. For reasons that have to do equally with the present moment in American history and the personal history of the American President, these two bear powerfully in both predictable and unpredictable ways on what Mr. Obama says about religion and on how it is heard.
The American race and immigration questions obviously have their Australian analogues as does the religious question and, within the religious question, particularly the Islamic question. The Muslim South and East loom perhaps even larger in your future than the Muslim Middle East does in ours. I was fascinated to hear a long exploration on National Public Radio back home of a new Australian program for expanding the study of Asian languages in your secondary school curriculum. It told me that my subject this evening is one already on Australian minds. Let me guess that some Australians are proud to have a son or daughter building fluency in Urdu and others are a little unsettled by the prospect.
barack obama: illegal muslim immigrant?
Let us proceed now with the announced religious question. The bully pulpit of the American presidency is a perilous pulpit. The presidential preacher can easily do more harm than good from that pulpit to whatever version of the American creed he wants to promote. Yet many lately have been calling for the current President to make more frequent, higher-profile visits to that pulpit. They don’t use the word preach, but clearly they want more than routine statements from No-Drama Obama. They want some deployment of the more sharply focused and emotionally stirring language they remember from Senator and Presidential Candidate Obama. I am going to center this evening’s discussion on the most important statement on Islam in American international relations that the President made before his election. We can then consider what he promised to do in that speech with what he has been doing for almost the past two years, ending with the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy that has been inflaming American political discussion for the past month or so. Along the way, we shall discover that they are not only the President’s supporters who want to see him mount the pulpit. His foes want to see conspicuously there as well, the better to shoot him down.
Before turning to the mentioned campaign speech, I would like to pause to acquaint you with a couple context-setting reports from the American political circus that make some of us throw up our hands and cry, “This country is a lunatic asylum.” Perhaps they will make you do the same, but then perhaps not. According to the latest poll of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 18% of the Americans, almost all of them Republicans or conservative independents, believe that President Barack Obama, whose Christian pastor got him in serious trouble during the past electoral campaign, is secretly a Muslim. These Americans must necessarily believe, then, that all along, while trying to defend his pastor and contextualize black church preaching, their Muslim president was merely masquerading as a Christian. Logically, too, they must believe that the young, black, 27-year-old Pentecostal pastor, Joshua DuBois, who heads the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and who sends the President a biblical text or other inspirational message every morning at 6 a.m., must be in on the masquerade as well, a front man, a Christian clergyman hired to conceal the Muslim truth. It must be the case that the low profile Rev. DuBois has maintained until very recently, his refusal of interviews, and so forth have all been intended paradoxically to attract the attention that they feign to deflect, all the better to send up a smokescreen of fake Christianity and hide the President’s real practice of a what many Americans consider an alien religion. Am I being sarcastic? Yes, but to quite a serious point, which I offer first as a question: If Barack Obama were a declared Muslim, he could still be legally President of the United States, so what difference does it make?
Hold that question in mind while I share with you another recent report; namely, that 41% of Republican voters—equal to the same approximate 18% of the general electorate—believe that President Obama was born in Kenya, not in the United States. In point of fact, the President was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961 two years after it became an American state. The Fourteenth Amendment to the American Constitution stipulates that anyone born on American soil shall be an American citizen. The President’s birth certificate, which the mentioned 41% of Republicans must believe a forgery, has been examined and officially certified by the State of Hawaii. Legal challenges to the legitimacy of the President’s incumbency in an office for which native birth is a Constitutional requirement have all failed. And yet, to repeat, nearly a fifth of the population, not content to regard Obama as a bad President, insists on regarding him as not President at all because not even an American.
What do you make of this? The easy explanation—the usual explanation for a great many—is just to give up and sigh that there are a lot of crazies out there. True, no doubt, but this particular species of craziness is rather different from believing that an extraterrestrial intelligence is sending you messages through your dog. This bit of craziness has a suspiciously well-calculated effect upon a conspicuously consequential decision. So allow me please to speculate a step further and suggest that this species of craziness is not, as it were, a wildflower popping up spontaneously in the national mind but a genetically engineered and very deliberately planted pest. During the last Presidential election campaign, then-candidate Sen. John McCain was asked whether the Constitution required that the President be a Christian. He answered, wrongly, that it did, and the press immediately called him on the error. But there is no doubt that he was giving that day, and knew he was giving, the answer that his conservative Christian audience wanted to hear. In other words, there is a chunk of America that believes that if you aren’t a Christian, you aren’t really a bona fide American, certainly not American enough to be President. Another chunk, overlapping with the first, feels—and I stress that we are dealing here with feelings—that if you have a foreign name, a dark skin, and a foreign-born father, then you’re as a good as a foreigner, no matter what it says on your birth certificate. This chunk of America, I hasten to add, is not the whole of America. Mainstream American culture has evolved to a point where opinions of this sort cannot be espoused in plain language and publicly defended without shame. They can, however, be turned into urban myths whose point is: “That man has no business being in the White House.” They can be turned into a politically acceptable set of counter-factual assertions whose intention is overturn an election and de-legitimate a President.
or is he just a nigger?
Hostility to people of the “wrong” religion or the “wrong” ethnicity ordinarily goes by the name nativism in the United States, and one often hears that word used polemically against people who want to seal America’s southern border and speedily deport any Mexican discovered to be in the United States illegally. So, for example, I find Mexican immigration characterized in a mailing from an organization to which in the past I have been a contributor as “a runaway train, a human locomotive fueled by Latin America’s entrenched misery that has come barreling across the Rio Grande to demographically explode in major American population centers….” We’ll have more to say about this flashpoint later. In the case of the African-American Barack Obama, I suspect that what we are seeing is actually racism disguised as slightly more acceptable nativism. I suspect, to elaborate, that the objections that Obama is a Muslim and a native-born Kenyan are stand-ins for the no longer culturally permissible objection that he is a black, a negro, a nigger. A colleague of mine, visiting his mother in Alabama after the BP ocean-floor oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, was shown a glossy mailing she had received. The cover read, “Giant Tar Ball Washes Ashore.” When one turned the page, there was a photograph of Barack Obama. Somebody in Alabama with enough money to send a glossy mass mailing considers the current White House resident to be President Tarball. Attitudes like these may be more virulent in the American south, but they may turn up anywhere, and they have an odd psychological linkage to the immigration question.
As a boy going to school in a racially mixed neighborhood of Chicago, one of the insults I most often heard shouted from passing cars at blacks on the street corner was “Go back to Africa!” 99% of African American families in that city at that time had been in America many generations longer than 99% of the 2nd and 3rd generation “urban ethnics” like me, who were tossing epithets at them. In a presidential primary debate in the late 1980s, candidate Michael Dukakis said that America was a great country for allowing a second-generation Greek American like himself to rise high enough to run for President. To this, candidate Jesse Jackson wryly replied that, yes indeed, American was a great country for allowing a second-generation Greek American like Michael to meet in debate with a twentieth-generation African American like Jesse himself. If seniority determined social rank, African Americans would be at or near the very top inasmuch as the importation of enslaved Africans ceased entirely way back in 1808. The fact remains, however, that late-arriving white immigrants to the United States quickly integrated the story of their search for a better life with the story of the original European immigrants who founded the country—the Pilgrim Fathers, as they are called. Moreover, a part of their Americanization was learning not to regard black Americans as fellow immigrants worthy of fraternal compassion and respect but rather as aliens with no story but slavery, like captured exotic animals that might best be sent back where they belonged. They certainly did not belong in a neighborhood like ours living side by side with “real” Americans.
By no means all Americans have adjusted psychologically, even now, to the huge change that came about in American race relations during last third of the twentieth century as the black American story was narratively integrated with the general American story and as the legalization and progressive normalization of black participation took hold in all walks of American life. These Americans experienced a species of culture shock, I believe, as the first-ever black President took office. Here, in that psychological shock, we find perhaps the taproot of the deeply felt anti-Obama talk about “taking our country back” from what is clearly felt to be some kind of usurpation.
Let me quote to you from words that right-wing Fox News pundit Glenn Beck used in a video promoting a mass rally entitled “Restoring Honor” to be held before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28, the anniversary to the day of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 from the steps of the same august building. Over soft piano music, in a tone of confiding and solicitous gravity, Beck says:
This [rally] has everything to do with “Who are we?” There is profound change happening in America, and there is a window of opportunity that comes in the lifespan of every republic, every civilization—a window of opportunity to reach for that brass ring or to miss it. We’re not the people that we’ve allowed ourselves to become.
We aren’t? When, exactly, did we become some other people? The implication is pretty clear: We did so when we elected a black President. If this kind of restoration language were linked to a set of actions at home or abroad that had actually and measurably harmed the speakers in question and that the speakers wanted to rescind, one could discount this more psychological explanation of their antipathy. After all, Americans at the other end of the political spectrum, who wanted to close Guantanomo, bring the troops back from Iraq, end domestic surveillance, rescind tax reductions for the wealthy, and so forth, used similar language of “taking the country back” too, but for them it was their political shopping list that mattered. They wanted certain things done; whoever would do them would have their support. In the antagonism toward Obama, we seem at times to be dealing with something mysteriously ad hominem, floating free of any stated policy agenda
giving rationality its due (and no more)
I do not by any means intend to reduce to twisted and crippling prejudice all the opposition that the Obama Administration has encountered from the Republican minorities in the two houses of the U.S. Congress. Remember that my target subject in this talk remains the changing world religious context for international diplomacy in general and American diplomacy in particular. But I am not alone in sensing a viscerally felt, rationally hard-to-decipher element in the a priori solidarity of the congressional opposition to the Obama Administration. Laws are passed by simple majority in the 100-member U.S. Senate. You only need 51 votes to enact a law. But by longstanding custom, a custom that has been honored by both major parties in the Senate, a method exists to block majority rule. With only 40 votes, a minority can prolong debate, or “filibuster,” so as to prevent a given law from ever coming up for a vote. The wisdom of the filibuster rule is that it provides a measure of protection against what Alexis de Tocqueville thought the great danger of the American or any democratic political system—namely, the “tyranny of the majority.” If a minority feels strongly enough to go to the extreme of talking round the clock, then the majority should stop and take thought: Perhaps popular opposition to the proposed law will make it unenforceable. But until the Obama Administration, it had never happened that every significant measure proposed by the majority party would encounter filibuster-level opposition by a minority party in the Senate that has placed itself in a permanently embattled state. Is it reasonable to believe that the minority’s opposition, in every single instance, has been prompted exclusively by the intensity of its disapproval of the laws being proposed as laws? Or is the intensity fed in part from the mentioned elusive, officially inexpressible, perhaps only partially conscious opposition to the President for who he is rather than for what he has been proposing?
I myself have had just one brush with a gang of Tea Party demonstrators determined to disrupt a meeting—that is, not to dominant a public discussion but to shout it down, to break it up altogether, and I confess that there seemed no other word for what I felt coming at me that afternoon but hatred. I am speaking, obviously, of a subjective experience. No one’s brain that afternoon was wired to a monitor. No one’s pulse was being taken. There were a couple skirmishes with the police at the fringes of an outdoor crowd estimated at 3,000, but no one was injured. But I still say: There was hatred in the air. And according to reports that, thank God, neither the conservative nor the liberal media want to linger over, the rate of death threats leveled against President Obama exceeds by a wide margin anything the Secret Service has seen with a previous White House incumbent. To be blunt and ugly about it, more Americans want to kill this President than wanted to kill any of his predecessors. Think about it.
Friends, even hatred benefits more from understanding than from denunciation. So let me throw all remaining caution to the wind and risk an Australian analogy. You have just come off an election in which feelings ran very high, yet Gillard and Abbott are both of British descent. Imagine if you will a future election in which the Labor candidate, an adult convert to the active practice of Christianity, is a man born in Hobart to an atheist mother and an English-speaking Muslim father from Mindanao. Imagine that this Tasmanian mother, abandoned after three years by her Filipino husband, later married a Brazilian, who took his new wife and his half-Filipino son--Adong Astali by name—back home to Sao Paulo, where Adong spent the middle years of his boyhood speaking Portugese and running the streets of the teeming metropolis. Now add to this imaginary picture that the iconic Sydney Opera House has been terror-bombed nine years earlier by a takfiri cabal cunningly organized from a remote base in Afghanistan. (Afghanistan works just as well for Australia as for America.) And last, imagine that Prime Minister Astali—photogenic but dark-skinned, round-faced, and sloe-eyed—is taking office in an Australia whose ethnically Asian population, thanks to heavy immigration, much of it illegal, has grown to 57%, which happens to be the size of the non-white majority in my home state of California.
How does white Australia—how do you—feel when this prime minister appears on television? Are there not questions about how he will manage Australian relations with Indonesia and the rest of Muslim Asia? Where do white Australians think he will come down on the asylum question? Where will he stand with regard to cooperation with the still embattled United States against still dangerous takfiri terrorism? Most of all, setting all particular questions completely aside, how do you feel about him in your gut? Does he seem like a brother Australian to you or not? Do you trust him?
Please understand: I do not mean to insinuate anything unflattering about Australia, whose efforts at racial and ethnic cross-cultural understanding have been beyond exemplary in recent years. I do not mean to speak, as it were, of indictable offenses but only of inevitable susceptibilities. We are all susceptible, suggestible, reachable in ways conditioned by our history as well as our learning. Statesmen know this about us and act accordingly. Demagogues do too.
obama in 2007: rebooting us policy toward world islam
Now, with all of these feelings left deliberately humming in the air for the purposes of our emotionally enabled discussion, let me turn at last to 2007 campaign speech, entitled pointedly “The War We Need to Win,” in which then Sen. Barack Obama laid out in some detail how he would manage American foreign policy in the midst of America’s ongoing, post-2001 wars of reaction in Muslim Iraq and Muslim Afghanistan. He announced a program with five points. The first was that the United States needed to disengage from Iraq and re-engage in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was then, in the first sense of his title, the location of a war we needed to win. Afghanistan had indeed provided a base for the takfiri terrorist attacks on the United States (Qaeda means “base” in Arabic), but it was no more than a key base for a network that operated menacingly from other, largely autonomous locations as well. The second point of Obama’s program, accordingly, was that the United States needed to repair and improve intelligence cooperation with other nations that were as threatened as it was, by no means and perhaps not primarily Western nations. We had to stop going it alone.
In this connection, thinking back to 2001 and thinking about the importance of international cooperation in controlling what is, in fact, a scalable, ideologically motivated crime syndicate like the mafia rather than anything remotely comparable in its scope to the Nazi Reich or the “Greater Eastern Co-Prosperitiy Sphere” of fascist Japan, it is instructive to recall how exactly opposite the initial effect of al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the United States was to the effect the syndicate intended. The takfiri terrorists intended to unite the Muslim Ummah and divide the West. Instead, they united the West and divided the Ummah. In the West, there was an outpouring of love for and solidarity with the United States as had not been seen in decades, perhaps not since Woodrow Wilson was briefly apotheosized as the savior of Europe at the end of World War I. Le Monde ran the headline: Nous sommes tous américains, “We are all Americans.” The article beneath opened:
In this tragic moment when words seem so poorly to express the shock that one feels, the first thing that comes to mind is this: We are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers, as surely as John F. Kennedy declared himself, in 1962 in Berlin, to be a Berliner. How, really, can we not feel, as in the gravest moments of our history, in deep solidarity with this people and this country, the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe liberty and therefore our solidarity.
And the French reaction was not unique. Two hundred thousand Germans gathered in sympathy round the Brandenburg Gate. Tony Blair gave the best, most heartfelt speech of his career. Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, there was no dancing in the streets. There were abashed condolences at the official level. At the popular level, there was a stunned if not a tacitly shamed silence. As it became known that the perpetrators were Sunni Arabs, there was even a small demonstration or two in Shiite Iran against the attackers and for the attacked.
Moreover, the quick American intervention in Afghanistan was intervention in a civil war already in progress. America had, at the start, a clear domestic side to be on and could have consolidated, if nothing more, a free Afghanistan consisting of the country’s northern and western tribes extending as far as Kabul. Again, there were no loud public denunciations in the Muslim world, and there was a measure of silent cooperation from Iran. Washington could have poured some of the hundreds of millions squandered later in Iraq into making Afghanistan a model for the world of what democracy could do for a war-ravaged Muslim country and could then have waited to see which way the flow of refugees went between this newly consolidated country and Taliban-controlled southern and eastern Afghanistan. Alas, failure to consolidate in this or some other way, failure to make at least one population of suffering Muslims clearly the beneficiaries rather than yet again the casualties of American self-defense has been rightly seen in retrospect as perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in all of American military history. It was, in fact, seen so by not a few Americans as the war drums began beating in Washington for the reckless invasion of Iraq, a country that had had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attack that brought all heaven crashing down on its head.
So, yes, a historic opportunity had been lost, but what now could be done to recover? The third through fifth points in Sen. Obama’s 2007 program were: “engaging the world to dry up support for terror and extremism; restoring our values; and securing a more resilient homeland.” These were clearly all aspects of a promised re-engagement in a struggle for world spiritual leadership that, under the Bush Administration, the United States had been losing and losing badly.
The most far-reaching passages of the speech addressed how, as President, Sen. Obama would try to dispel the widespread impression in the Muslim world that the United States was at war with Islam. Let me quote two long passages, if I may. In the first, the candidate says, in effect, what he will not do. He will not fuse all enemies from anywhere in the Muslim world into a single enemy and then inflate that enemy to the dimensions of a world empire in the making:
[President Bush] would have us believe that every bomb in Baghdad is part of al Qaeda’s war against us, not an Iraqi civil war. He elevates al Qaeda in Iraq—which didn’t exist before our invasion—and overlooks the people who hit us on 9/11, who are training new recruits in Pakistan. He lumps together groups with very different goals: al Qaeda and Iran, Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. He confuses our mission
And worse—he is fighting the war the terrorists want us to fight. Bin Ladin and his allies know they cannot defeat us on the field of battle or in a genuine battle of ideas. But they can provoke the reaction we’ve seen in Iraq: a misguided invasion of a Muslim country that sparks new insurgencies, ties down our military, busts our budgets, increases the pool of terrorist recruits, alienates America, gives democracy a bad name, and prompts the American people to question our engagement in the world.
By refusing to end the war in Iraq, President Bush is giving the terrorists what they really want, and what the Congress voted to give them in 2002: a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.
It is time to turn the page.
Time to turn the page to what? Above all, to a refutation of the myth that the United States is at war with Islam, a refutation in which a perhaps significant role would be reserved for America’s own loyal Muslim population. I quote again:
…we know what the extremists say about us. America is just an occupying Army in Muslims lands, the shadow of a shrouded figure standing on a box at Abu Ghraib, the power behind the throne of a repressive leader. They say we are at war with Islam. That is the whispered line of the extremist who has nothing to offer in this battle of ideas but blame—blame America, blame progress, blame Jews. And often he offers something along with the hate. A sense of empowerment. Maybe an education at a madrasa, some charity for your family, some basic services in the neighborhood. And then: a mission and a gun.
We know we are not who they say we are. America is at war with terrorists who killed on our soil. We are not at war with Islam. America is a compassionate nation that wants a better future for all people. The vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims have no use for bin Ladin or his bankrupt ideas. But too often since 9/11, the extremists have defined us, not the other way around.
When I am President, that will change. We will author our own story.
I will…launch a program of public diplomacy that is a coordinated effort across my Administration, not a small group of political officials at the State Department explaining a misguided war. We will open “America Houses” in cities across the Islamic world, with Internet, libraries, English lessons, stories of America’s Muslims and the strength they add to our country, and vocational programs. Through a new “America’s Voice Corps” we will recruit, train, and send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with—and listen to—the people who today hear about us only from our enemies.
As President I will lead this effort. In the first 100 days of my Administration, I will travel to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle. I will make clear that we are not at war with Islam, that we will stand with those who are willing to stand up for their future, and that we need their effort to defeat the prophets of hate and violence. I will speak directly to that child who looks up at that helicopter, and my message will be clear: You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.
Regarding the child and the helicopter, Obama had said in opening this portion of his long address:
When you travel to the world’s trouble spots as a United States Senator, much of what you see is from a helicopter. So you look out, with the buzz of the rotor in your ear, maybe a door gunner nearby, and you see the refugee camp in Darfur, the flood near Djibouti, the bombed out block in Baghdad. You see thousands of desperate faces … And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?
bold program, arrested implementation
Such in all its evocative eloquence was the program, clearly one to raise expectations that an important page was indeed being turned. But, three years later, what has been the implementation? Here, the picture is predictably mixed. Let me note, first of all, in fairness to President George W. Bush, that he quite explicitly dissociated the 9/11 terrorists from world Islam at the very start and periodically thereafter found occasion to make the same dissociation. Narrowly speaking, then, there has been no change in this regard. The problem with the Bush Administration’s rhetoric, however, was in the first place that the effect of its endlessly repeated and massively enacted “global war on terror” rhetoric tended powerfully to undermine its much less frequent and never elaborated disclaimers that the United States had any quarrel at all with Islam as such. The phrase “Global War on Terror” had that effect because, quite clearly, the United States was not waging war on terror in all forms found anywhere on the globe. It was unconcerned about Basque terrorism in Spain or Tamil terrorism in Sri Lanka. Its preoccupation was always and only with Islamist terrorism and then only when it was directed at the United States; Muslim terrorization of other Muslims in Somalia or Sudan provoked no American military intervention. Everyone knew this, but the fact that no one said this lent a mood of pretense and deceit to the administration’s speechmaking, especially when certain other prominent Americans were quite unhesitatingly implicating Islam as a whole in terrorist violence.
The problem with the Bush Administration’s rhetoric, in the second place, was the fatal impression it conveyed that the United States regarded all members of the subset of world terrorists that it worried about as a single large enemy when, among them, there seemed no discernible principle of unity except a common religion. No attempt was made to characterize the arrogant and divisive takfiri ideology in detail, then distinguish it in detail from mainstream Islam, then further identify this authentic, mainstream Islam as a religion that the United States had welcomed to our shores and even defended abroad. Had the United States not gone to war to defend the Muslim Kosovars from genocide at the hands of the Christian Serbs? Inconveniently, this was a rescue that Republicans loudly opposed at the time, but the Bush Administration could have gained a little crucial plausibility that it was not waging a religious war by overlooking that fact for post-9/11 diplomatic purposes. Instead, the odd and ominous vagueness of the phrase “global war on terror” was allowed to convey the sense that the United States was hiding something. And then, when war was launched against a Muslim country that had not attacked the United States, that had no nuclear weapons, but did have massive oil deposits; when, during the initial invasion, American forces protected that country’s oil ministry while allowing its national library to burn down and its national museum to be looted, suspicions hardened and a deep-rooted conviction of American bad faith took hold.
The language of Obama’s 2007 speech strongly implied that what had been proclaimed an apocalyptic world war with no end in sight—a “Long War” as conservatives wanted to call it—would now be shrunk down and sorted out into a set of real but manageable, local conflicts. Consistently enough, the Obama Administration has completely retired the phrase “Global War on Terror.” One simply never hears that phrase on the lips of any cabinet member or spokesperson. This was, in its way, a promise to deflate the rhetoric, not to inflate it—if anything, a promise to stop preaching to the world as if the defense of the United States were a sacred cause for the whole human race. Here, a change clearly took place, and its initial success was palpable.
Not long after the Bush Administration formally returned full sovereign control over Iraq to its newly elected government, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki demanded the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces. A bit taken aback perhaps by this demand, the Bush Administration nonetheless commenced talks; and after a protracted negotiations, it was agreed that all U.S. forces would leave Iraq by the end of 2011. After his election, President Obama simply put the implementation of this agreement on a clear timetable. On August 31, 2010, combat operations were officially ended, and a remaining insurance force of 50,000 U.S. troops was effectively confined to its bases, to be called out only by the Iraqi authorities in case of what they would regard as need. Iraq has achieved neither military nor political stability, yet the Republican will to re-escalate a war waged on false premises seems as wanting at this point as the Democratic will. So, we may say that President Obama has substantially implemented the Iraqi half of the first point of his five-point program but that the key work had been well begun before he took office.
As for the Afghan half, the Obama Administration hawkishly enough, and to the dismay of some liberal constituents, tried to take the fight to the real enemy, just as Sen. Obama said in 2007 that he would do, not hesitating to launch attacks against al-Qaeda in northwest Pakistan to which its leadership fled from the interrupted initial attack. As for violent Taliban resistance to the American presence in Afghanistan, after protracted discussions, the new President secured a public commitment from the top U.S. generals in December 2009 that the security situation could be stabilized in eighteen months. So, July 2011 still stands as the anticipated withdrawal date. The war has been going badly, however, and many anticipate pushback from a politically emboldened military as July 2011 approaches. Most recently Gen. James Conway, soon to retire as head of the U.S. Marines, publicly asserted that the agreed-upon deadline is giving “sustenance” to the enemy. That said, the continuation of the war is opposed by 60% of Americans, many of whom, I believe, are asking in effect whether a failed state in Afghanistan harms U.S. interests more than a failed state in Mexico, given the American inability or unwillingness to expend the manpower necessary to regain control of the long U.S.-Mexico border, the world’s only land border between a First World and a Third World state. It is not at all inconceivable that the fallback American posture in Afghanistan will resemble the current holding posture in Iraq—namely, an abandonment of the doomed attempt to create a reliably democratic and allied state in favor of the mere maintenance of an American military base strong enough to prevent a truly hostile party from freely consolidating control and turning Afghanistan again into a terrorist base against the United States. If we are not an irresistible force, then perhaps we can be an immovable object. As never before, the United States is confronting the limits to what even a military superpower can do.
In the realm of intelligence cooperation, the second of Sen. Obama’s five points, it is impossible for a private citizen to know whether or not the cooperation that the presidential candidate promised to seek has been forthcoming from allies perhaps now less disgruntled or suspicious. What one can notice, though, is complete abstinence on the part of the Obama Administration from invoking classified intelligence that must not be shared even with Congress as political justification for any of its major actions. To that extent, at least, intelligence-gathering has been de-politicized.
These points duly made about more resolute disengagement in Iraq, more focused re-engagement in Afghanistan, and quieter intelligence cooperation, the continuities between the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration in these areas have been as great as the discontinuities. It is rather in the realm of engagement with the Muslim-majority countries of the world as a cultural bloc that a sharper break has seemed in the offering and that expectations, accordingly, have been higher. Not to exaggerate even this, the American State Department has clearly had ad hoc relations with Muslim leaders and Muslim movements, typically combining elements of religion and politics or war, for as long as there has been a State Department. America’s first foreign war and ensuing peace treaty was with the Emirate of Tripoli in the late eighteenth century. But Obama did seem to be promising something much larger, an unprecedented public engagement between the secular American state and a large world religious communion that in his judgment now required, as never before in U.S. history, to be addressed as such. How significantly or otherwise has that promise been kept?
The President did keep his promise to “travel to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle. This was his much-noted speech at al-Azhar University in Cairo—a true Islamic forum rather than merely a government forum in a Muslim-majority country. But of the more far-reaching, imagination-catching public diplomacy program promised in 2007, little has materialized. President John F. Kennedy’s creation of the “Peace Corps” was his attempt to swing neutral countries into the American sphere of influence and away from the Soviet sphere by mobilizing America’s brightest and most idealistic young people to aid them materially and win them spiritually. Facing a comparable challenge for credibility and influence within the Ummah or world Islamic community, President Obama’s proposal of an “America’s Voice Corps” clearly bespoke a similar agenda to “recruit, train, and send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with—and listen to—the people who today hear about us only from our enemies.”
Allow me a small digression at this point to talk of conversations I have had with Muslim friends in Los Angeles who fear to engage in any public celebration this year of Eid al-Fitr, the End-of-Ramadan holiday sometimes called the Muslim Christmas. This year, Eid al-Fitr falls on September 11, and they fear violence. A deeper fear hovers in the background. Some fear that their community may be interned as California’s Japanese Americans were during World War II. This is not a proximate fear, I repeat, and all kinds of public functions do continue. Still, it is mentioned; it lingers in the mind as a possibility that worsening circumstances could activate. But to these dark possibilities, let me quickly add two other aspects of the experience of America’s Japanese American community during World War II. The first is that young Japanese American men volunteered in substantial numbers to serve in the U.S. Army in World War II and distinguished themselves for extraordinary bravery, later copiously honored with military decorations. The second is that long before the end of the war, the American authorities, foreseeing the likelihood of an American occupation of Japan, called on Japanese Americans to assist in the preparations, not just as language teachers and sometimes language learners, building on the colloquial Japanese that they had heard at home, but also, crucially, as culture coaches. The American occupation of Japan went as smoothly as it did for various reasons, but this was one.
Sadly, the Muslim American community has been only very modestly mobilized for this kind of service since 9/11, though in my experience it is almost poignantly willing, even now and despite the mentioned chauvinist rumblings. Haris Tarin, an Afghan Muslim whose parents had to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that his parents chose the United States quite consciously because of its religious freedom. It grieves him that some Americans are now willing to deny Muslims the protection of American law, but his hope remains vividly alive that authentic American tradition will win out in the end. On August 22, 2010, I attended the annual interfaith rally of the Los Angeles Shura Council, an umbrella organization for local Muslims. In attendance were an Army general, an Air Force general, various members of the National Reserve, a representative of the County Sheriff’s office, and so forth. The willingness of the local Muslim community to stand up and defend America is, as I say, almost poignant to behold.
The Obama promise back in 2007 suggested that this kind of willingness would now at last find an answering willingness in Washington DC. Yet since Obama’s election, though here have been symbolic gestures, important ones, there has been no comprehensive program. Why not?
american agitprop: round one to the democrats
Let me propose an answer that you may be already guessing from remarks I made earlier in this speech. Since the President is not a Muslim and had never had his American birth called into question, these two charges as they were first formulated and circulated as electoral sabotage during the Presidential electoral campaign initially blind-sided him and his campaign. The agitprop was being insinuated into the national discussion from the periphery, through right-wing blogs scantily monitored by the mainstream press and better-known right-wing talk shows, especially the Rush Limbaugh show. Clearly, it seemed to be gaining some traction. What had so recently been an asset was suddenly being turned into a liability. Sen. Obama’s cosmopolitan intelligence, subtlety, and cultural sophistication, as shown in the books—Lessons from My Father and The Audacity of Hope--that had made him rich and substantially contributed to his political viability now were turned into canards designed to make him religiously exotic and Constitutionally ineligible, and the deception was working.
The response of the Obama campaign—never announced as such and surprisingly overlooked by the ordinarily hyper-alert political press—was a flanking maneuver rather than a frontal assault. The campaign imposed a gag rule on any mention of the candidate’s partly foreign parentage and partly overseas upbringing and chose instead to massively foreground the picture-perfect incarnation of black American family values that was the Chicago family, the Robinsons, into which he had married. The campaign film flawlessly produced for the Democratic Party’s nominating convention and viewed then by a staggeringly large domestic audience said nothing about the candidate’s Indonesian half-sister or his brilliant Kenyan half-brother, Mark Obama Ndesanjo, an English teacher and novelist in China, married to a Chinese woman, and a legend in his adopted country for the perfection of his spoken Mandarin. The campaign film said nothing, for that matter, about the President’s mother, a serious anthropologist but also, it seems, a bit of a hippy. No, what attention did not go to the statuesque Michelle Obama, her handsome and athletic brother, her prim and stern but motherly mother, her deceased, hardworking father, and the Obamas’ two beautiful daughters went to the President’s white grandparents, with the emphasis falling on their farm upbringing in Iowa and the grandfather’s service in World War II. Nothing was made up. It was all true. But it was all beautifully designed to foil the effort being launched by the Republicans to drive a cultural wedge between the candidate and, so to speak, “plain, honest Americans like you and me.” And it worked: the suspicions that had been planted about the authenticity of the candidate’s Christianity and the legality of his citizenship never reached critical mass.
As interesting and astute as what the campaign did to produce this result is what it did not do. It did not—and the candidate himself in particular did not—respond indignantly or repeatedly to the planted and cultivated rumors that he was a foreign-born Muslim illegal immigrant. What neither did, in short, was take the bait. They did not allow the refutation of a bogus charge fabricated by the opposition to distract them from talking about what they wanted to talk about. And they were very swift to recognize and exploit opportunities to lead the discussion where they wanted it to go.
What, really, was going on? Way back in 1992, Thomas and Mary Edsall, veteran political reporters for the Washington Post wrote a perceptive book entitled Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics. In this book, they divide American political conservatives into social or backyard conservatives and economic or boardroom conservatives. Boardroom conservatives, who pay the party bills and finally run the show, are concerned about things like keeping wages low and union organization difficult; about preserving a large role in the legislative process for lobbyist largesse and for private wealth in general, aiming especially at procuring favorable regulations such as one I heard of lately stipulating a priori that all oil industry waste shall be regarded as non-toxic for the purposes of waste disposal; about keeping taxes sharply lower on capital gains than on earned income; and finally about halting or shrinking benefits like government-paid health care and income supplements for the handicapped and elderly.
Building a large electoral coalition around boardroom conservatism can be a tall order. Backyard conservatives, on the other hand, care about issues that typically don’t cost boardroom conservatives a cent to support—issues such as banning abortion, banning gay marriage, imposing prayer in the public schools, requiring the Pledge of Allegiance at a lengthened roster of public events, denouncing sex education, celebrating stay-at-home moms, and denouncing the courts for being “soft on crime.” None of these causes, to repeat, costs a tax penny, and some of them appeal across party lines to economically liberal but socially conservative Democrats. So, the Republican tactic, as the Edsalls analyze it, has repeatedly been to find and actively raise the profile of some simply grasped, emotionally charged wedge issue on the social agenda and then to force the Democrats to discuss that issue rather than anything on the economic agenda.
In the 2008 presidential election, the race issue suddenly became acute in early Spring when Republican opposition research found some 1960s-vintage, America-bashing black rage in recorded sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Obama’s pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the church he had joined as an adult and a relative newcomer in the city. The audacity of hope—a phrase of Wright’s that captured Obama’s imagination, became the title of his second book. Wright had married the Obamas. The relationship was real. Suddenly, race, which had seemed to be a non-issue in this campaign, flared up into an acute and, as intended, a divisive issue; but Obama rose to the occasion with a speech of such scope and brilliance that historian Garry Wills compared it to a historic speech of Abraham Lincoln’s during his campaign for the presidency. The speech both completely reassured supporters and completely disarmed foes, and it was only then, during the following summer, that the alternate wedge issues of antipathy toward immigrants (to be stirred up by fabricating the charge that Obama was one) and antipathy toward Muslims (again, to be stirred up by fabricating the charge that Obama was one) really came to the fore. Note well that encouraging either kind of prejudice is a low-cost option for boardroom conservatism: One may be as anti-Mexican or anti-Muslim as can be without necessarily calling for a dollar of new government expenditure against either “threat.”
Now, what became of these agitprop falsehoods after Obama’s election? Until these last months before the election, one heard relatively little about Islam as a foreign, much less as a domestic issue. What our President might want American attitudes to be toward Muslim citizens or their mosques or other meeting places was not remotely a topic for discussion. The immigration issue too, electorally touchy for both major parties for different reasons, seemed to have gone to sleep until a controversial Arizona law put it intermittently back on the agenda. During the first two years of its incumbency, the Obama Administration was concentrating heavily on the domestic issues of economic recovery and regulatory reform, on the one hand, and the creation of a national health insurance plan, on the other. In both areas, over relentless Republican opposition, the Democrats were successful, making, as we might put it, domestic hay while the sun shone and putting foreign policy, even environmental policy, on hold. One could only wonder during this long hiatus whether the ambitious program of public diplomacy promised in the President’s 2007 speech would ever come back. Had it merely been postponed, or had it rather been set aside as too costly, politically, given the possibility that the Republicans might try again to turn the President into an illegal Muslim immigrant?
american agitprop: round two to the republicans?
What we have seen in fact in just these last weeks has been a breathtaking escalation of the 2008 attempt to drive a wedge between the President and the people. Two hitherto distinct anxieties—Islamic terrorism and illegal immigration—have been inflamed and fused into one, and a wave of fear has intensified both among Muslim Americans and among Mexican Americans. Such has been the escalation that the sacrosanct First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion to all, and the almost equally sacrosanct Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection of the law to everyone born on U.S. territory have both been called shockingly into question. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican Congressman from Texas, has called for the repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment because, as he alleges, jihadist mothers are slipping across the Rio Grande, having citizen babies, then spiriting them back across the river and off to Muslim lands where they are to be trained for re-infiltration as citizen terrorists once they have grown up. As for the First Amendment, Brian Fischer, head of the conservative American Family Association, a Republican prominent enough to be invited to speak on the same platform with Republican presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney and the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, has written that American freedom of religion does not extend to Muslims at all and that no more mosques should be built anywhere in America.
Of all the mosques proposed for construction anywhere in America, the most controversial, as you may well have heard, is the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” actually an Islamic Center like a Muslim YMCA, to be built two blocks from, though not visible from, the 9/11 memorial. The center is to be headed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a trustworthy enough American Muslim leader to have traveled abroad representing the United States with Karen Hughes, who served as President George W. Bush’s Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy. After some months of uncontroversial planning, with all due New York City approvals plus $100 million in private funding in hand, it seemed headed for routine completion and a distinct but probably rather small place in the city’s life. Then, suddenly, it found itself the lightning rod in an electrical storm of crackling intensity. Former Republican congressman Newt Gingrich compared Imam Rauf and the American Muslims who want to open it to Nazis. His exact words were: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.” The unmistakable implication of Gingrich’s words was that all Muslims, including all American Muslims, are as implicated in the 9/11 terror-bombings as all Nazis were implicated in the Nazi death camps. Demonstrations against it joined a conservative media assault upon it led by the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News, despite the fact that the proposed Islamic center’s funding had come from the Kingdom Foundation of Prince Waleed bin Taleel, a part owner of Fox News’s corporate parent who is well-acquainted not just with principal owner Rupert Murdoch but also with former President George W. Bush himself, with whom he was once photographed holding hands in the Arab manner in the White House rose garden.
What on Earth going on? As you will know from my earlier remarks, I believe that those who have been whipping up national opposition to this Islamic center have quite possibly done so in hopes of provoking President Obama into statements in support of it that could then be used to make him seem “soft on terrorism” as well as indifferent to the suffering of those left bereaved by the terrorist bombings of 9/11/01. In a word, they have been baiting him and through him the Democratic party for tactical gain in the upcoming election. If I am right about that, then it is just possible that they have lost control of their own game. The game seems initially to have been exploiting a genuinely broad, hard-to-fault American sense of sympathy for those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 bombing. The game would not ideally have been to excite an ugly far-right reaction against all mosques, all Muslims, or First Amendment freedom of religion itself. But this is what seems to have happened: A Time magazine poll in late August 2010 revealed though fewer than half of all Americans believe that Islam is more violent than any other religion, 70% of Republicans believe that, and fully 75% of the most conservative Republicans do so. These are the people whom we have been hearing from, but is passing the bullhorn to them really a wise move if the goal is to build support among disgruntled Democrats and Independents for Republican candidates? Might these people scare off as many as they pull in?
Perhaps not: Perhaps, indeed, the longer-term result of the Obama-baiting will be the spread of generalized anti-Muslim attitudes, not sparing American Muslims, from the far-right to the near-right to the center, and so forth. But perhaps the effect will be just the opposite. 48% of Republicans said in the sameTime survey that Muslims should not be allowed to run for president, but only 25% of Independents agreed. Are these proportions stable, or is the balance about to swing in one direction or the other? I want to believe that the attempt to twin the Mexican “anchor baby” of recent conservative immigration rhetoric with the new “jihadi baby” of Islamophobia is a political cartoonist’s dream come true. Yes, there are a lot of crazies in this country, and they can be got to pretty easily, but there are a good many certifiably sane people out there as well, some of them blessed with a lively sense of humor. I want to believe that in November they will vote their head-shaking and their chuckles. But I could be wrong.
The country has been harmed, in any case, because this metastasizing story of Americans stopping one mosque and proposing to stop all future mosques has international legs and is giving massive aid and comfort to the al-Qaeda crime syndicate that the United States and our allies have been trying to contain. As opposition to the Islamic center morphs into prejudice toward Muslims as Muslims, not excluding even an American imam found worthy to represent the United States by a conservative president, a story becomes plausible that Americans concerned with national defense, not to speak of other values, should want to make laughable. Obviously, what I call an ideologically motivated crime syndicate does not call itself that. It sees itself within Islam as like the Communist Party within the Workers’ Revolution—namely, as the divinely ordained voice of the Muslim people, rousing it to revolutionary global jihad. Strategically, the American goal and the goal of all who want to check an Osama bin Laden must be to make him seem small, pathetic, heterodox, deluded, and—above all, perhaps—ludicrous. Building an Islamic center near the scene of the syndicate’s greatest crime is a beautiful way to do just that. My dream, my aggressively, combatively, passionately patriotic American dream, is of the day when busloads of children paying their visit to the 9/11 Memorial are bussed over to Cordoba House, as the Islamic center is to be called, as just another well-established stop on the tour bus. This is my dream because it will mean that, godammit, we won, they lost! They wanted to foment a religious war, and we almost went for it. We took the bait for a while, but then we spit it out. We didn’t repudiate our Constitution so as better to fight them on their fucking terms. We won the biggest victory anyone can win in a war which is not to make the friend of your enemy your enemy but to make the friend of your enemy your friend and your ally, to win him over to your side, and then finally to make your enemy your friend as well.
So, this is how Jack Miles preaches (in language not quite suitable for the pulpit—I apologize), but Jack Miles is not the President. How can the President say what needs to be said for the country’s sake without hurting his party and himself. The President has been thrown off his stride, I believe, by the “Ground Zero Mosque” affair; he has taken a hit. But despite criticism from both sides, he may not have lost his footing entirely. Here’s what happened.
conclusion: still waiting for the preacher
After hosting an iftar, the festive Muslim evening meal that takes place nightly during the month of Ramadan, the President addressed the controversial issue. “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders,” he began. “And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”
But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. (Applause.) And 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 unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
Muslims were elated. Liberals were elated. I was elated. The President, speaking explicitly as President, seemed indeed to have made himself clear. The preacher was back. But then the storm winds began to blow even harder. Gingrich, for one, accused the President of “pandering to radical Islam”; and less than twenty four hours later, the President saw fit to add a clarification that seemed fatally like an equivocation: “I was not commenting, and I will comment,” he told reporters just as he left on vacation, “on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”
Technically, when you read the President’s iftar remarks carefully, this characterization is accurate. He did address himself to the general right rather than, in so many words, to the particular case. He may have refrained from commenting on the wisdom of the project as such lest he be accused of ramming an unwanted, offensive mosque down the throats of the people of New York. The White House press office, technically again, was within its rights to assert in a later statement that there was no contradiction between the formal remarks and the informal comment a day later.
And yet in retrospect, this abstention seems a blunder. What the President could have done, what with the wisdom of hindsight he perhaps should have done, was distinguish at the iftar dinner itself between the right to build the Lower Manhattan Islamic Center and the wisdom of building it. “As President,” he could have said, “I unhesitatingly assert the Constitutional right. As for the wisdom, I believe I should defer to the Mayor of New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” he could have proceeded to point out, “is the most popular mayor New York has had in half a century. Mayor Bloomberg happens to be a Republican, not a Democrat like me. He happens also to be a Jew, not a Christian like me. But Mayor Bloomberg happens also to be not just grudgingly but forcefully and eloquently in favor of the Lower Manhattan Islamic Center. So, let me urge my Republican friends, my fellow Christians, and any others who may oppose this Center to take their objections to Mayor Bloomberg. I think it only proper that I defer to him.”
Immediately after making what I just called a blunder, the President and his family went on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, where he chose to be noticeably and quite excusably unavailable to the press. The “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy raged on, but Barack Obama has long seemed at least to me to have a canny sense of when to shut up and let his opponents hang themselves. Given Mayor Bloomberg’s backing, I think it likely that Cordoba House will be built, that New Yorkers will quickly find better things to do than keep worrying about it, and that it will become, just as I foresaw a moment ago, a kind of proud footnote to an American tragedy. Nevertheless, speaking both as a citizen and as man, I find it deeply saddening when in the pursuit of short-term political gain lies are fabricated that prey on prejudices, undermine the most precious and deeply held values of a nation, and subvert its national defense. Reassertions of what the President called “the writ of the Founders” need to be repeated often and loudly. The overseas analogue of those reassertions, promised so boldly in 2007 needs to be remembered and enacted. The ugly mood now gathering must be dissipated by a more authentically American kind of talk and action. I am encouraged that when hate-motivated demonstrations have been called, the counter-demonstrations, however sluggishly they take shape, have often ended up larger. When Salam al-Marayati, the intrepid president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles, drove to Temecula, California to confront the mass demonstration that Tea Party activists had called against a local mosque, he found that, after all, hardly anybody had showed up. It was all a teapot without a tempest.
As I hope I have shown, the “Obama’s America” of my title finds itself in a world religious context that is domestic as well as foreign in dynamically interactive ways. After Sen. Obama announced his intention to give a major speech in a Muslim country, it became a revealing exercise to call to mind how different Muslim capitals would suggest different content for the promised speech. Mumbai, Jakarta, Sarajevo, Nairobi, even Baku in strikingly liberal Azerbaijan, which aspires to be the Geneva of the Caspian region—for each there was not just a different local agenda to address and a different local history of relations both with Islam and with the United States to recall, there was usually a different domestic American constituency to call upon as well. The challenges were many and large, but Sen. Obama seemed ready by both experience and education, to confront them. What few foresaw was how effectively a promising vision of international peace-building could be stymied by a set of strategically planted, politically motivated lies.
It must not be supposed, of course, that the world religious context is comprehended in its entirety by the encounter between world Islam and the United States. For many years now, American news has been real news for everybody, while nobody’s news has been real news for America. Americans tend too easily and all too narcissistically to confuse a passing historical period with the natural order of things. And yet relations between world Islam and the United States of America do lie close to the center of what is at least one of the larger cultural encounters of our time, one that must come to a satisfactory resolution if the still fragmentary international community is to come to maturity well enough and quickly enough to address grievous problems like climate change that cannot be engaged at any lower level. For now, the outcome of this encounter, even or especially as it is occurring within the United States itself, seems troublingly uncertain. As time runs out, an old saw keeps coming back into my head: “The Lord protects little children, the simple-minded, and the United States of America.”
To this I say: Insha’allah and good night.