As we navigate the waning days of our xenophobic August, with so many opportunists in high dudgeon about Muslims in our midst, perhaps it’d be wise to quote a notably tolerant Republican — somebody whose words might possibly shame the fearmongers who currently pervade his own party.
For instance: “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms, and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect. … They love America just as much as I do.”
On Sept. 17, 2001, so said President George W. Bush.
Hey, I’m starting to miss the guy. Notwithstanding all the disastrous aspects of his presidency, his generous, inclusive attitude toward immigrants of color — particularly Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11 — was always in the finest American tradition. We could use a sustained dose of his tone today.
Unfortunately, the conservative movement that he twice led to victory now seems to have shelved that pluralistic tradition, preferring instead to sow fear to reap short-term political gain. And not a single prominent Republican politician has had the courage — heck, it’s not even courage, it’s a duty — to step forward and denounce the roiling irrationality that currently infects our political discourse.
So we’re stuck with the faux issue of a “ground zero mosque” that’s actually not just a mosque (it’s a proposed community center with an interfaith board of directors) and not at ground zero; with Newt Gingrich equating all Muslims with Nazis; with myriad attacks on mosques in Florida (pipe bombs, bullets); with Sarah Palin Twittering her simplicities; with an evangelical pastor who plans to mark the 9/11 anniversary by burning copies of the Quoran (when asked what he knew about the Quoran, he replied, “I have no experience with it whatsoever”); with a tea party blogger who writes that all Muslims are “animals” who worship a “monkey god,” and whatever else the haters are doing in our name.
Since no elected Republican dares to utter a peep, let us try to quell the hatred, however briefly, by skimming the cream of the Bush ouevre. What you’re about to read was mainstream Republican thinking just a few scant years ago.
From the president’s second inaugural address, on Jan. 20, 2005:
“In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character — on integrity and tolerance toward others … . That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Quoran … .”
From remarks on June 27, 2007, at the rededication of the Islamic Center in Washington:
“We come to express our appreciation for a faith that has enriched civilization for centuries. We come in celebration of America’s diversity of faith and our unity as free people. And we hold in our hearts the ancient wisdom of the great Muslim poet Rumi: ‘The lamps are different, but the light is the same.’”
From remarks on Sept. 17, 2001:
“Both Americans and Muslim friends and citizens, tax-paying citizens … were just appalled and could not believe what we saw on our TV screens. These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Quoran itself: ‘In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.’ The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”
Compared with what we’re hearing on the Republican right these days, Bush sounds like a “Kumbaya” folkie in the tradition of Peter, Paul, and Mary. But even at the time, he was no starry-eyed naif. Aside from the fact that his calls for tolerance were in the best American tradition, there was also a dash of calculation. He and his advisers knew that al-Qaeda wanted to frame the war on terror as a clash of civilizations. Therefore, it ill-served America to behave as though it were at war with Islam. It was smarter to embrace the followers of Islam, as a way of isolating the violent extremists who had perverted its tenets. Basically, this was a national-security priority. It still is.
Bush’s former chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, understands that. He’s one of the only Bush alumni who has spoken out; in a recent newspaper column, he reiterated the Bush credo: “A president not only serves Muslim citizens, not only commands Muslims in the American military, but also leads a coalition that includes Iraqi and Afghan Muslims who risk death every day fighting Islamic radicalism at our side.”
In other words, Americans who attack their fellow Muslim citizens — and politicians who inflame such attacks or remain mute — are weakening America. As Gerson put it, treating Muslims as bogeymen, and assailing their Lower Manhattan project, will “undermine the war on terrorism. A war on Islam would make a war on terrorism impossible.”
Of course, it’s easy to understand why the post-Bush GOP has done nothing to quell the Muslim-bashing. Its priorities are decidedly short-term. Forget the war on terror; this party is primarily focused on the war for control of Congress. Its conservative base is angry, fearful, and ginned up for November. Muslim American voters are far less numerous, and the liberals and moderates who lament the current hysteria aren’t likely to vote Republican anyway — or even to vote at all this year.
So it’s probably futile to wave the flag and quote George W. Bush again, but let’s give it one last try. Six days after 9/11, he warned his fellow citizens that Muslims “must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.”
Is that really so hard to agree with?
E-mail Dick Polman at firstname.lastname@example.org.