Last weekend when President Obama played good cop/bad cop in trying to articulate his position on the Ground Zero mosque, one was left with the distinct impression that the president didn’t know quite where he stood on the issue.
After a fine, brave defense of Muslims to build there, the president “clarified” his position a few hours later by basically saying “no they don’t.” Obama realized too late he had touched the newest third rail in American politics and gotten electrocuted for his troubles.
What the president apparently didn’t realize is that any defense of the mosque was tantamount to supporting the idea of it being built at Ground Zero. Later, as he tried to cleave his statement on constitutional rights by attempting to separate the abstract notion of rights from the real world idea that Muslims were attempting to construct an icon to their religion at the site of the worst terrorist attack in American history - carried out by Muslims - Obama came off wishy washy. The perception by both mosque proponents and opponents was that he took sides in the controversy and then tried to weasel out of his position.
But Obama and the Democrats aren’t the only ones who have discovered that touching the Islam issue can be hazardous to one’s political health. While 70% of Americans oppose building the mosque at Ground Zero, most of those Americans agree with the president that Muslims have the same rights as any other religion to practice their faith whenever and wherever they see fit. The GOP tried gamely to separate their opposition to the mosque from the crazies in their base who are rightly perceived as bigots in their view of Muslims - all Muslims - as “the enemy” in the War on Terror. Protestations to the contrary, the notion that “the only good Muslim, is a dead Muslim” is not unknown among the knuckledraggers.
In truth, much of the GOP base is not in favor of killing all Muslims. They just want to deny them equal standing in American society with Christianity. There are probably less than 3 million Muslims in America and yet, every accommodation by schools, cities, towns, and municipalities to Muslim traditions and religious practices brings forth the most wildly hysterical accusations of the “dhimmification” of America. A proposed foot bath at the University of Michigan brought an over the top response from noted self promoting, anti-Muslim blogger Debbie Schlussel. The idea of making the Eid a school holiday in New York brought this blogger to a state of near apoplexy.
The idea that so few Muslims could force the rest of us to accept Sharia law or forcibly convert us is, of course, idiotic. So there have also been proposals to limit or eliminate immigration from Muslims countries, which gives some in the base a twofer; anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bigotry to boot.
This is part of the baggage being carried by Republican critics of the mosque who must avoid any appearance of intolerance lest they be tied to the rabid bigotry of the base. Yes, there is rabid bigotry and it is more widespread than most on the right would care to admit. All one need do is visit the comment section of any medium sized or large blog and scan responses to posts about the mosque. Islam is a “cult,” or “evil.” To many, there is no such thing as a “moderate” Muslim. If they are not outwardly supportive of the terrorists, they harbor a secret desire to enslave us. There is no accommodation with Islam, only conflict.
If you know a little history about Catholics in America, you will recognize that they were saying much the same thing 160 years ago with the first great influx of Irish immigrants. The myth that America is tolerant of other religions is belied by the historical treatment of Catholics and Jews in this country. While lip service is paid to constitutional protections, as late as 50 years ago, there were serious conversations carried out by serious people about whether electing a Catholic president would doom us to rule from Rome.
With one side getting scorched for agreeing with Muslims about building a mosque at Ground Zero, and the other being skewered for perceived intolerance, one can begin to see why most smart politicians kept their mouths shut about the mosque. There was real danger of making a misstep and falling off a cliff into controversy - something devoutly to be avoided 70 days before the election.
One can argue that opposing the mosque being built at Ground Zero is hardly tantamount to expressing bigotry toward Muslims, but the perception can successfully be shaped by the opposition that lumps opponents in with the crazies. If you’re in a close race with many persuadable voters, the last thing you want is to be tarred as a bigot. Similarly, you can parse your words and speak in glowing abstracts about the constitution and freedom of religion while having your words twisted into support for Islam’s “triumph” over the infidel. There really isn’t any upside to taking a public position on whether to build the mosque.
This won’t be the last controversy about Muslims in America, which sets up an interesting dynamic. As these political fights become more and more toxic, it is likely that most politicians will become more reluctant to take a stand. When coming down on one side or the other loses you votes, you tend to split the difference.
Better to be called wishy washy than a Muslim lover or a bigot.