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Obama muddles his mosque message

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With a battle brewing over the construction of a proposed mosque near Ground Zero, people on the streets of Washington, D.C. give their opinion.

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Last Friday, at the start of Ramadan, President Obama presided over the White House's annual iftar dinner and made some rather bland remarks about religious freedom. The context, of course, was the controversy over the proposed mosque in Lower Manhattan, which is not, as Obama insisted, about freedom of religion but about religious tolerance. And then, having once again gotten high praise for so very little, he went to bed a panicked man and reached, trembling, some hours later, for a political morning-after pill to take back some of what he had said. Whew, for a moment there he was pregnant with principle.

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No more. "I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," Obama said in revising and extending and eviscerating his remarks of the previous night. He had merely been commenting on freedom of religion. Turns out he's for it.

The president muddled his message. Does he not grasp that questioning the "wisdom" of the mosque's placement is predicated on thinking that 9/11 was a Muslim crime? Does he not understand that the issue here is religious prejudice, not zoning? The answer, of course, is that he does. But unlike Henry Clay, he would rather be president than right.

The very ugly controversy over the planned Islamic center -- not at Ground Zero, mind you, and not even within eyeshot -- has managed to make fools or knaves out of some pretty smart people. Some of them have embarked on a fruitless hunt for the perfect analogy. The winner, as you might have imagined, goes to that evil cherub Newt Gingrich, formerly of Georgia but now of any meeting hall with a spotlight. He said approving the mosque "would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust museum."

Gingrich keeps trying. Earlier he had argued that since there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia, "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero." But the mosque is not Saudi Arabian; it is Islamic, a distinction not all that hard to keep in mind. The comparison to a Nazi sign at the Holocaust museum is equally specious. Every Nazi was dedicated to the persecution and/or murder of all Jews. This is not the case with Islam and the attack on the World Trade Center. That attack was conducted by a handful of fanatics, not an entire religion.

Others have joined in the false analogy contests. The most surprising is Charles Krauthammer, my longtime colleague on The Post's op-ed page. In a belabored analogy, he said that while "no one objects to Japanese cultural centers, the idea of putting one up at Pearl Harbor would be offensive." Yes, indeed. But all of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and declared war on the United States. It was not a rogue act, committed by 20 or so crazed samurai, but an attack by a nation. You can look that up.

Krauthammer, though, could not be stopped. He likened the mosque to a "commercial tower over Gettysburg," then to the attempt to establish a convent outside of Auschwitz and, inevitably, to "a German cultural center at, say, Treblinka." Enough said. We all have bad days.

If it is not false analogies that pollute this debate, it is false populism. The people are opposed. John Boehner, the House minority leader, says so, and so does Rep. Peter King, the Long Island Loud Mouth who is clearly running for something. They are right -- but so what? Would they have liked Lincoln to have deferred to popular sentiment in the South regarding slavery? Would they have liked Truman to have polled the Army about desegregation? Minority rights are embedded in our Constitution. It was the perceived lack of them that caused the states to seek some immediate amendments, what we now call the Bill of Rights. King, Boehner and the rest of the GOP mob are showing a fearless willingness to pander to majority prejudice. Newt has mounted a crusade against radical Islam. No Saracen will be safe.

The inclination to go from the particular to the general -- to blame a people for the acts of a few -- is what has always fueled pogroms and race riots. History shows that it is a natural tendency and it will literally run riot if not controlled. It is the solemn obligation of elected leaders to restrain such an urge -- to be moral as well as political leaders. Obama almost pulled that off, but he flinched.

Yes, he couldn't.

cohenr@washpost.com

For more Post opinions on the New York mosque, read Michael Gerson's Obama's mosque duty, Eugene Robinson's Republicans pander over 'Ground Zero mosque', Dana Milbank's Religious tolerance, then and now, Charles Krauthammer's Sacrilege at Ground Zero and the editorial Obama needs to show leadership on mosque debate.


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