[guest post by JVW]
Traditionally, Presidents in their final year of their final term should have wide latitude to address controversial topics, especially those that might cause some discomfort within his own base of supporters. One thinks immediately of President Eisenhower pointing out the influential “military-industrial complex,” a surprising warning from a career military man who had led the Allies to victory in the Second World War. Not all Presidents take this opportunity — Bill Clinton spent his final year trying to rehabilitate his legacy after his impeachment and George W. Bush was busy dealing with the financial collapse that closed out his Presidency on such a sad note — but in theory the President’s final year in office ought to be an opportune time to address issues of importance even at the risk of alienating some of his supporters.
So I was pleasantly surprised when along with the predictable pleas for gun control legislation and feeble defense of his miserable Mideast policy in his December address in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, President Obama had this to say about Muslims in America:
. . . If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.
That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.
Though it may be relatively weak sauce, for this President to acknowledge even in a vague way that far too many Muslims are far too sanguine about the violence done in the name of Allah seemed to me to be a breakthrough of some sort, and I was hopeful that President Obama might challenge more Muslims here and abroad to become more directly engaged in the fight against extremism.
Naturally, it looks like my hopes were way premature. Yesterday, the President visited a Mosque in Baltimore to give a speech intended for the greater Muslim community. That his choice of a location raised some eyebrows even among the “moderate Muslims” the White House so fervently courts was typical of the tone-deaf arrogant ideologues that comprise this administration. But the real missed opportunity was unsurprisingly in what the President had to say to the American adherents of Islam who gathered to hear him speak. Naturally there were the typical platitudes: “Thank you for lifting up the lives of your neighbors, and for helping keep us strong and united as one American family.” There were the usual sob-stories: “I’ve had mothers write and say, ‘my heart cries every night,’ thinking about how her daughter might be treated at school.” There was a banal pean to multiculturalism: “This is a moment when, as Americans, we have to truly listen to each other and learn from each other.” And, Obama being Obama, there was every effort to insert himself personally into the debate as well as the tired recitations of one of his shop-worn clichés: “These are children just like mine. And the notion that they would be filled with doubt and questioning their places in this great country of ours [. . . ] that’s not who we are.”
To be sure, the President did mix in a pretty mild call for Muslims to drop their religious chauvinism and to be vigilant against extremist voices who would seek to recruit within their communities (though, notably, not one word was mentioned about the potential for newly arrived “refugees” from “Syria” to promote the siren song of radicalism). He also issued a very pro forma challenge for them to speak out against persecution of Christians and Jews in Muslim-dominated societies (though Obama appears to willfully ignore the fact that the strident secularism in countries like France is proving to be as inhospitable to Jews as the rise of Islamism, probably because his favored policies here promote the strident secularism fashionable in Europe). He even made a somewhat oblique reference to the notion that Muslims should be interested in military service, again
ignoring mostly avoiding the uncomfortable truth that Muslims in some Western countries have shown more willingness to join ISIS than to join their new nation’s armed forces.
But worst of all in the President’s address to the Muslim community of Baltimore was one quick clause in a sentence that seemed to tip the hand of the Professor of Constitutional Law as to what he really thinks of the First Amendment. In bloviating on the need for us to watch what we say about Islam, he uncorked the following:
So the best way for us to fight terrorism is to deny these organizations legitimacy and to show that here in the United States of America, we do not suppress Islam; we celebrate and lift up the success of Muslim Americans. That’s how we show the lie that they’re trying to propagate. We shouldn’t play into terrorist propaganda. And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. That betrays our values. [Emphasis added]
Think about that for a moment. The phrase “we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem” appears in both the President’s spoken remarks and in the official published version on the White House Press Secretary website, meaning that phrase was drafted and approved by the Administration. Note that telling the American people what they “can’t” say appears immediately after the President makes the more palatable suggestion that we “shouldn’t” help terrorists by bullying Muslims. Wouldn’t a more facile thinker with a sincere respect for the First Amendment have switched the placement of the verbs in the two sentences? We can’t play into the terrorist propaganda. And we shouldn’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. Or, if the oratorical geniuses in the speechwriting team didn’t think that soared enough for Obama’s tastes, they could have switched the order of the two sentences: “We shouldn’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. We can’t play into the terrorist propaganda.” Instead, Obama comes off sounding like most modern Western progressives, suggesting that he is willing to sacrifice free speech on the altar of mollifying a fashionable victim group.
It’s going to be a long, long year ahead of us.
[Note: post-publication edit made to choose more accurate word; noted above with the crossed-out original.]