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On Sept. 11, Obama struggles to balance messages of war, tolerance

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President Barack Obama says a plan to mark 9/11 by burning copies of the Koran could cause "profound damage" to U.S. troops. Obama also addressed the controversy surrounding the construction of a mosque near ground zero.

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 3:30 AM

As President Obama attempts to lead the United States beyond the deep trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he has found himself confronting rising anti-Islamic sentiment at odds with his message of religious tolerance.

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It is a contradiction and a challenge, both cultural and political, for a president who has concluded U.S. combat operations in Iraq, set a deadline for U.S. forces to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan and urged audiences to see Islam as a religion of peace.

Obama will mark his second 9/11 commemoration as president Saturday by laying a wreath at the site of the Pentagon attack. His message has been conciliatory.

"I think that at a time when the country is anxious generally and going through a tough time, then fears can surface, suspicions, divisions can surface in a society," Obama said Friday at a White House news conference. "We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other."

Working against those efforts is Obama's political need to keep reminding the nation of al-Qaeda's assault in order to justify his escalation of the Afghan war, which only a minority of Americans believe is worth fighting. As a Democrat who never served in uniform and spent some childhood years in a Muslim-majority nation, Obama also is hindered in speaking about Sept. 11 by his own biography, raising suspicions among an increasingly anti-Islamic public whenever he tries to promote tolerance.

"He starts from a different place than the vast majority of Americans in that his introduction to Islam was not 9/11 but in Indonesia as a child," said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting that "there's an unusual amount of incoherence in the country running up to this anniversary."

"One of the things that has distressed the president is that he has an intellectual understanding of these issues that is now coming up against an unfolding political reality," Alterman said. "And this is a president who, while good at politics, seems most comfortable in the world of policy."

The Sept. 11 attacks helped define Obama's approach to national security before he began his run for the presidency.

As a candidate, he used the attacks to underscore his opposition to the Iraq war, arguing that President George W. Bush had squandered U.S. military resources and credibility at a time when they were most needed against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. As president he has nearly tripled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, citing the enduring terrorist threat against the United States he says is rooted deepest in that region.

Obama has also worked, with varying degrees of success, to end what he has criticized as damaging post-9/11 national security policies, sharpening a partisan debate over whether interrogation methods such as waterboarding and indefinite detention of terrorist suspects strengthen or harm the United States' ability to fight al-Qaeda. He prohibited torture in interrogation, and in speeches from Cairo University to the East Room of the White House he has called on Americans to celebrate Islam as a peaceful religion whose followers have contributed greatly to U.S. society.

"We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11," Obama said at the dinner he hosted at the White House last month to break the daily fast during Ramadan. "And let us always remember who we are fighting against and what we are fighting for. Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al-Qaeda's cause is not Islam."

At that dinner, Obama endorsed the right of an imam and his associates to build a 13-story Islamic center two blocks from the site of the attacks in Lower Manhattan. "Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," he said, before stating that "this is America and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."


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