How Obama Lost The Islam Debate

The mosque in Cairo where Obama gave a speech. Getty Images
The mosque in Cairo where Obama gave a speech. Getty Images

Don't blame preacher Terry Jones for the last week's Quran burning debacle. He was the crackpot in that drama — he was just doing his job.

Blame former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for Muslim-baiting by stoking the public's fears about "creeping sharia." Blame Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf for waiting a month too long to defend his Downtown Manhattan Islamic center in a New York Times Op-Ed.

Blame the utterly worthless inner circle of advisors who seem incapable of counseling President Barack Obama on when to tread lightly and when it's time to put his foot down.


And blame Obama for not speaking clearly on this issue from the start, because when he wants to, religion is something that he's actually pretty good at talking about — like this fireside chat for last year's White House Diwali:

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Unfortunately for the president, now isn't one of those times. If he can blur the lines between church and state for prayer breakfasts and White House Passover seders, then he can't take a flier on the controversial stuff.

Last month, almost one in five Americans polled thought Obama, a Christian, was a Muslim. Forty-nine percent of Americans say they have a negative view of Islam. Two thirds of Americans oppose the planned Islamic center being built two blocks from Ground Zero.


But how did the president respond? He offered his thoughts about Jones' Qur'an burning stunt after everyone from Gen. David Petraeus to Sarah Palin had already weighed in. He said what he was expected to say: Burning Qur'ans would be an Al Qaeda "recruitment bonanza" and "we are not — and never will be — at war with Islam." That's all fine.

But he didn't put the issue to rest. He's left Muslim Americans on uneasy footing about where they fit in American society. He didn't even give "ground zero mosque" opponents a Bloomberg-esque stance that they could at least respectfully disagree with. And the boost he gained in the Muslim world from his 2009 Cairo speech is slowly fading away.


The approach is hurting Obama — and it really didn't have to be this way. He doesn't have to scold or get indignant, but he has to serve up some real talk if he doesn't want to lose his grasp on the issue for good. He's made three mistakes that have to be overcome:

Go to Church

When he parted with Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008, finding a church home should have been at the top of Obama's to-do list. The National Cathedral is waiting there for the first family to come and worship, and as long as he's not in Sunday services, the less people will be convinced he's really a devout Christian.


Go to a Mosque

Going back to his presidential campaign, Obama went overboard keeping his father's Muslim background at arms' length. Every rumor about his "Muslim roots" is already out there, so now he'd be better off visiting a masjid for Friday services as a way of saying "These folks aren't scary, and I'm not scared."


Give a Speech

And the White House team has to stop treating the Islam debate like a distraction from their messaging on the economy. For one thing, their economic message isn't all that hot.


For better or worse, the relationship between America and Islam is on people's minds, so instead of appending remarks on Qur'an burnings and mosques to already calendared speeches on the economy and 9/11, Team Obama needs to consider an Islam speech along the lines of Obama's landmark "A More Perfect Union" speech on race relations.

That speech resonated with Americans because Obama didn't sugar-coat the issues — he explained that he was grounded in the black civil rights struggle but that he was also in touch with white America's anxieties about race.


Similarly, if the president wanted to get control of the Islam debate, or at least put it to bed so that he could get the country focused back on his economic plans, he'd have to challenge non-Muslims to confront their own assumptions about Islam, and he'd have to challenge Muslims to take ownership of the cultural divide. This is what he'd have to say:

…The First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of expression. That means as president I can't stop anyone from burning Qur'ans. But as a citizen, I can condemn it — and I do because in my opinion, destroying any holy book is wrong and un-American.


It also means as president that I have to protect the right of Muslim Americans to create a place of worship in Downtown Manhattan, but I also have to protect the rights of those who protest the creation of that place of worship.

This is America. We'll never be like China, where the government can crack down on any kind of demonstration that they don't like. We're also not like France. We'll never have a law forbidding girls from wearing the hijab to school because our right to the freedom of worship is as important to us as the founding principle of separation of church and state.


As both your president, and as a citizen, I call on non-Muslims to consider that part of living in a free society means tolerating ideas or religions that you find offensive or foreign, such as Islam. And I call on Muslim Americans to recognize that as a minority in this country, they have to lead, not follow, in the fight to gain acceptance in our society. I can't do it for them. If America is going to continue to thrive, then Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha'is, practitioners of Native American religions, agnostics, atheists, and especially Muslims all have to work that much harder to heal our divisions.

But I do want to offer an apology:

When I campaigned to become president, I went out of my way to make sure everyone knew I was a Christian and I left you with the impression that I thought Muslims were somehow less than 100 percent American — I want to correct that now. Muslim Americans, like all Americans, should be proud of both their country and their faith.


My father was a Muslim immigrant to this country, but long ago, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. My Bible teaches, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I hope all Americans will do the same.

God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter

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