In what is becoming an unfortunate pattern, the Obama administration — and political leadership in general — missed an incredible opportunity last weekend.
The past week saw the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a fiery controversy over Florida pastor Terry Jones’ proposed “International Burn a Quran Day,” and the first televised interview of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero. Nine years ago, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center brought the West’s relationship with Islam to the center of American public discourse.
This renewed tension provides a chance to capitalize on the attention being paid to Islam’s place in the United States and an opportunity to create a more lasting peace. Societal turning points frequently happen when leaders step up in times of crisis. Whether it was Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s or Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the United States’ illustrious history of leadership is the reason we have long been able to call our nation the land of the free and home of the brave.
It is during times like these that President Barack Obama, as a prominent and inspirational speaker, should emulate the heroes of the past. Unfortunately, it seems this moment will pass without a decisive display of leadership to remind us of our values. Fear of the electorate has won the day, as it has far too many times since Obama’s inauguration.
Obama should have used this week to make a major speech. The events of the week presented an opportunity to address multiple key facets of the United States’ relationship with the Islamic world.
First, Obama should have recognized that we can no longer pretend that the strained relationship between the West and the Islamic world is sustainable. Sept. 11 and countless other terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic radicals on Western targets demonstrate that there is a significant enough level of hatred by some in the Islamic world to pose a threat to the United States and its allies. Though the vast majority of Muslims oppose terrorist tactics and motivations, their voices are frequently drowned out by a minority that is, by definition, much more vocal and visible.
Conversely, the public needs to know that laws such as the Swiss ban on minaret construction and the success of radical anti-immigrant parties in traditionally liberal and tolerant countries — including the Netherlands and France — demonstrate that there is a growing intolerance of Islam in the West.
Recent events in the United States show the proximity of that intolerance, including the public outrage at the proposal to build an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan and the decision of an extremist Florida pastor to sponsor a day of Quran burning on Sept. 11. The growing level of mutual distrust between many Islamic countries and the West threatens to escalate and endanger both, something Obama should not have left unaddressed.
His lack of a speech or notable public statement also left him remiss in his duty to emphasize — and capitalize on — the United States’ ability to keep its morals uncompromised. What has made America great through the years has been its faithfulness to its values even when they are most threatened. Obama should have challenged the nation to let the threat of extremism bring out the best in us once again.
Terrorism is a threat not because of the direct damage it can do, but because it can lead us astray from our values. Staying true to our values discredits Islamic fundamentalism; abandoning them strengthens it. The public often forgets that in its eagerness to decry all things Islam as radical, and as a result we undermine our patriotism.
A speech reminding the nation of this would have galvanized us, spoken to our capacity for tolerance and perhaps reminded the electorate what we loved about Obama at the beginning of his term as president.
Instead, the president sat down for a little-publicized interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in which he neither discussed the Ground Zero mosque nor addressed the greater social implications of the issue.
He did, however, offer up the following gem on Jones’ idea: “This is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda. You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who’d be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities. You know and so you know, I just hope that, he says … he’s someone who is motivated by his faith. I hope he listens to those better angels.” Failing to show leadership by dodging the discussion of a large-scale social issue and instead choosing to be a scaremonger and cry national security — sounds more like “W” than Obama.
If that is the Obama team’s strategy for the next two elections, it might be time for him to find some new advisers. However, if this reflects Obama’s own instinct, to shirk the responsibilities of leadership — then it could be time for us to find a new leader.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Wednesdays.