Proud

The President stands up and says that Muslims here are Americans, not strangers and enemies. That shouldn’t have taken courage, but it did. And he had it.

At the jump, the full text of the President’s speech at the White House iftar dinner.

The usual suspects are outraged; Glenn Greenwald is impressed, and big enough to say so. Glenn points out that there was no political upside in this for Obama; that’s true only if friends of civil liberty neglect to reward good behavior, but for President Barack Hussein Obama to take the stance he took clearly required enormous courage.

Putting the political fallout to one side, tonight I’m proud to be an American citizen. No, it shouldn’t take a President with brass balls to defend the rights of Muslims to build themselves a community center. After all, the battle against Cordoba House is a battle to define all Muslims, just as Muslims, as foreigners and enemies, which would be both a violation of one of our most precious traditions and an insanely stupid thing to do in the face of the need for Muslim allies in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and against al-Qaeda everywhere.

Nevertheless, the loonies have managed to stir up the country, as they did around Terri Schiavo. So it did indeed take nerve to stand up for what was not only obviously right but obviously essential to national security. And, as luck would have it, we had a President with willingness to put country over self, and the eloquence to link his stand to our national traditions. “This is America,” he said.

And as a bonus, he even gave a shout-out to those of us who don’t choose to practice any organized religion.

Really, “proud” doesn’t start to say it.

Text of President Obama’s remarks at the White House Iftar

Good evening. Welcome to the White House. To you, to Muslim Americans across our country, and to more than one billion Muslims around the world, I extend my best wishes on this holy month. Ramadan Kareem. I want to welcome members of the diplomatic corps; members of my administration; and Members of Congress, including Rush Holt, John Conyers, and Andre Carson, who is one of two Muslim American Members of Congress, along with Keith Ellison.

Here at the White House, we have a tradition of hosting iftars that goes back several years, just as we host Christmas parties, seders, and Diwali celebrations. These events celebrate the role of faith in the lives of the American people. They remind us of the basic truth that we are all children of God, and we all draw strength and a sense of purpose from our beliefs.

These events are also an affirmation of who we are as Americans. Our Founders understood that the best way to honor the place of faith in the lives of our people was to protect their freedom to practice religion. In the Virginia Act for Establishing Religion Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” The First Amendment of our Constitution established the freedom of religion as the law of the land. And that right has been upheld ever since.

Indeed, over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose – including the right to believe in no religion at all. And it is a testament to the wisdom of our Founders that America remains deeply religious – a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in contrast to the religious conflict that persists around the globe.

That is not to say that religion is without controversy. Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities – particularly in New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. 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 anyone else in this country. 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 will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure.

We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who have led our response to that attack – from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today. 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 – it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion – and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.

That is who we are fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms – it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race or religion; wealth or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect to those who are different from us – a way of life that stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.

In my inaugural address, I said that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. That diversity can bring difficult debates. Indeed, past eras have seen controversies about the construction of synagogues or Catholic churches. But time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it. So it must be – and will be – today.

Tonight, we are reminded that Ramadan is a celebration of a faith known for great diversity. And Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America. The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan—making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.

Like so many other immigrants, generations of Muslims came here to forge their future. They became farmers and merchants, worked in mills and factories, and helped lay the railroads. They helped build America. They founded the first Islamic center in New York City in the 1890s. They built America’s first mosque on the prairie of North Dakota. And perhaps the oldest surviving mosque in America—still in use today—is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Today, our nation is strengthened by millions of Muslim Americans. They excel in every walk of life. Muslim American communities—including mosques in all fifty states—also serve their neighbors. Muslim Americans protect our communities as police, firefighters and first responders. Muslim American clerics have spoken out against terror and extremism, reaffirming that Islam teaches that one must save human life, not take it. And Muslim Americans serve with honor in our military. At next week’s iftar at the Pentagon, tribute will be paid to three soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq and now rest among the heroes of Arlington National Cemetery.

These Muslim Americans died for the security that we depend upon, and the freedoms that we cherish. They are part of an unbroken line of Americans that stretches back to our Founding; Americans of all faiths who have served and sacrificed to extend the promise of America to new generations, and to ensure that what is exceptional about America is protected – our commitment to stay true to our core values, and our ability to perfect our union.

For in the end, we remain “one nation, under God, indivisible.” And we can only achieve “liberty and justice for all” if we live by that one rule at the heart of every religion, including Islam—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “Proud”

  1. I have a feeling there's plenty of political upside to this. Despite all the crazy, borderline pathological rhetoric over minorities in this country, I have faith that this kind of purely magnanimous behavior will appeal to people's better angels. It's deeply ingrained in American values, even if sometimes it gets lost in all the anger and hate.

    I think in a lot of ways people are getting really sick of where the right has gone lately – often making Bush seem relatively decent. None of which may translate into electoral victory in the fall. But at least he's fighting the good fight and in the long run will be rewarded for it.

  2. Your comparison with the Terry Schiavo debacle is particularly apt, Mark. In both cases "conservatives" have disregarded the fundamental issues, preferring instead to cast doubt on the presumed motives of the parties they choose to vilify, be it Michael Schiavo or the Cordoba group.

  3. "After all, the battle against Cordoba House is a battle to define all Muslims, just as Muslims, as foreigners and enemies, which would be both a violation of one of our most precious traditions and an insanely stupid thing to do in the face of the need for Muslim allies in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and against al-Qaeda everywhere."

    Isn't this exactly what the Left-wing blog community is doing and has always done to Republicans and Tea Parties? Find a few hateful signs at a public rally and then argue that half the country agrees with them? I don't think it works politically any more, but your hypocrisy is eye opening.

  4. Chris, I think that a fair point to a degree. But now you're simply lumping this blog in with others. I'm not sure I've ever read anything here that thinks racist Tea Partiers define the Republican party or conservatism in general. I think a strong case can be made that there's been a lot of capture of the movement by a race-baiting right wing.

    But that's a different argument. Anger over Cordoba is about defining Islam by a small group of Islamists, threatening the freedom and civil rights of an entire religion. Ironically, a fair case could be made that this in fact represents a similar bigotry, albeit largely unconscious, as those Tea Party racists.

  5. Chris would have a point if Republicans didn't have a 40-year history of supporting anti-minority policies, if they didn't have the racist Rush Limbaugh as the Man Who Cannot Be Criticized, and if Democrats were saying that Republicans couldn't build the buildings they want because of their feelings. It's not about a few signs– they are just further, minor illustrations.

    Anyway, kudos to our President for tackling the hatred and ignorance head on.

  6. Oh, and good old FDL is silent on this, but Jane has a post on Obama's Social Security speech: "If Obama Opposes Ryan’s Social Security Plan, Why Did He Appoint Him to the Catfood Commission?"

    No, really. They are entering self-parody country.

  7. Also, Chris, Joe Biden is on record as saying that he does not consider the Tea Party racist. The Tea Party is often attacked here at the RBC for being ignorant (not knowing the meaning of the word "socialism" for example), but not for being racist in a blanket way.

    While I still think we need to schedule that after-school conference with Mrs. Obama to tell her that Barry is not achieving up to his full potential, and to discuss ways to help him do better, I think he gets a gold star for today. I also make a prediction (which could easily turn out wrong) that there will not be many Republican candidates in this election cycle who will run clips from this speech in attack ads of any sort. I hope that someone can track when and where this happens if it does.

  8. As a critic of most things Obama, I, too, have to agree that he showed courage in showing his support for Cordoba House. This is what leadership looks like.

    Now, I'd like to see some similar leadership displayed in addressing things like unemployment and the expansion of the National Security State. (I'm not holding my breath.)

  9. Don't you think it's strange that people who don't live in New York are trying to tell New Yorkers where they can and can't build a mosque? I mean really!

  10. As another frequent Obama critic, I agree completely with Mark's post. This is what leadership looks like, this is what courage looks like, and it made me proud to have supported the guy during his campaign.

  11. He is not backtracking today, is he? The news this evening has him saying that he was not commenting on the wisdom of building a mosque, only on the right to build it. It was hard to tell nfrom the news broadcast if this was a response to getting flak from the previous day's speech.

  12. "He is not backtracking today, is he? The news this evening has him saying that he was not commenting on the wisdom of building a mosque, only on the right to build it."

    Here's what McClatchy's Washington bureau has to report about that. Sounds like waffling under pressure to me.

    Obama's spokespeople seem to be spinning this as the old "can vs. ought to" dilemma. You know, like critics to the left of the president have the right to denounce his devotion to the economic elite and the National Security State, but when we do we're crazy.

    Welcome Muslims. We might be under the bus, but at least we're in the shade.

  13. I think there is a lot we don't know. The Imam, Feisa Abdu Rauf, may well be thinking that creating more division and bigotry is against his religion. If he hasn't already, I would not be surprised if he went to city officials and said, "I bought the property because it met my specifications and price. I am tied to it now. I wouldn't have a problem being someplace else in lower Manhattan." So now Bloomberg's and Paterson's staffs are quietly scrambling around trying to figure out a plan that can work. It's hard. The only property they control belongs to the government, and a sweetheart deal with a Muslim imam, well that might make matters worse. They have to find a suitable property for sale that will cost the same or less to buy and renovate. This could take weeks. This may be impossible. But Paterson signaled it yesterday. Obama's softening tells me he knows something else, and he doesn't want to put the himself and the Dems too far out in the field, holding up nothing but an unpopular principle, when this story could be, fittingly, more ancient history in two weeks.

  14. Gotta agree with Eli that there's an upside to this. But I don't think it has anything to do with magnanimity. It's just rational political calculation.

    Basically, Obama had three choices: keep quiet, pander to the bigots, or say what he said. Pandering wouldn't work–the bigots wouldn't believe it, and everybody else would. Keeping quiet is an obvious choice, but I think Obama was too smart for that. If he kept quiet, the Republican professionals would have kept pounding him on it. He would have looked weak. By saying what he said, Obama gets no more obloquy than he would have gotten if he kept quiet, plus he looks strong.

    Which is not to say that Obama's position was wrong, or lacked moral courage. It was clearly the right thing. And I've seen too damn many people who are so morally weak that they will allow themselves to be hurt, rather than act forthrightly.

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