Are 70% of Americans anti-Islam?

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts an Iftar dinner in celebration of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on August 13, 2010. President Obama expressed his support for a controversial project to build a mosque near Ground Zero. UPI/Martin H. Simon/Pool Photo via Newscom

This weekend, President Obama gave a First Amendment defense of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero. The next day he made a point of noting that he wasn't addressing the "wisdom" of building a mosque at the site. One of those two statements probably angered most people but I appreciate his comments and that distinction -- noting that there are two discussions going on right now. Now, I think the conversation is worth having but I'm in that minority of people who do not believe the right thing to do is to fight this mosque. Part of this is because I'm big on the aforementioned First Amendment, part of it is because I think it's the Christian thing to do and part if it is because I'm Lutheran. Though my family became Lutheran long after World War II, I have heard stories about the trouble some Lutheran churches had during the first half of the previous century since many of them were heavily populated with Germans or even conducted services in German.

It's really difficult to be associated with a culture that your country is at war with. And considering that people affiliated with a particular strain of Islam have been targeting Americans here and abroad for over three decades now, the heat is on and the whole debate is just making me uncomfortable. It would be nice to have some level-headed leadership but most of the political figures seem to want to score points by characterizing one side or the other as bigots or idiots who are blind to reality.

It is into this mix that we've seen a bit of a mixed bag of media coverage. Some has been helpful while there also seems to be some disdainful dismissal of those with concerns about the mosque or the pouring of gasoline on the fire. On the latter point, I thought that [Journolist member] Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman's piece in Politico was treasonous. Just kidding! I simply thought it failed to substantiate its headline -- "GOP takes harsher stance toward Islam" -- and lede.

Now I know that this is Politico's deal -- they want to highlight conflict and make it as partisan as possible, but words have meaning. Contrary to the headline and lede, the article basically takes a bunch of conservative or apolitical concerns over one mosque and says that they are equivalent to the Republican Party attacking the entire religion of Islam. Does expressing concern over a bad priest make you anti-Catholic? Does finding Eat Pray Love obnoxious make you anti-Hindu? Does opposing Nazis make you anti-German? Does a critical review of Justin Beiber make you anti-pop music?

Islam is a big religion. There are, for instance, Muslims who oppose the Cordoba project. Are they anti-Islam according to Politico's definition? I guess so. The story begins:

The harsh Republican response to President Barack Obama's defense of a mosque near ground zero marks a dramatic shift in the party's posture toward Islam -- from a once active courtship of Muslim voters to a very public tolerance after Sept. 11 to an openly aired sense of mistrust.

Republican leaders have largely abandoned former President George W. Bush's post-Sept. 11 rhetorical embrace of American Muslims and his insistence -- always controversial inside the party -- that Islam is a religion of peace. This weekend, former Bush aides were among the very few Republicans siding with Obama, as many of the party's leaders have moved toward more vocal denunciations of Islam's role in violence abroad and suspicion of its place at home.

It's true. A lot of people are upset that Americans' tolerant response to an attack in the name of Islam has been met with the proposed building of a $100 million mosque near the site of the worst carnage. But most of the party people quoted in this piece defend the mosque and those that oppose it are not quoted attacking the religion of Islam. The rest aren't even party officials.

First up is a quote from an aide to a conservative billionaire who says nothing anti-Islam but suggests the real political division you're seeing is over national security. This is buttressed by someone who is not a party official:

"The president supports a mosque at ground zero led by a man who blamed America for 9/11, his top intelligence official preaches the true meaning of jihad, and his attorney general can't even say the words 'radical Islam,'" said Michael Goldfarb, an adviser to Keep America Safe. "You start to worry they don't understand who the enemy is, and so Republicans might understandably feel like they have to spell it out for them."

Obama, meanwhile, only fed Republicans' eagerness to engage the issue with remarks Saturday morning that appeared to narrow his broader embrace of Islam in America to a defense of the legal right to build a mosque, though his office later issued a third statement saying he hadn't backed off his original remarks.

Muslim leaders say, regretfully, that they also see a dramatic change.

Republicans have "shifted completely away from the Bush administration line on relations with Islam and they've obviously made the political calculation that bashing Islam and Muslims is a winning issue for them," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who blamed the "tea party movement [for] liberating the inner bigot in people."

The shift has various causes. One is simply the freedom of opposition. "The stronger imperative for Bush's stance was geopolitical," said former Bush speechwriter David Frum, referring to the Bush administration's reliance on Islamic allies for the prosecution of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now Republicans are liberated to say what many think, and what many of their supporters want to hear.

So let's just sum up -- national security concerns over radical Islam are the same as general anti-Islam sentiment.

Is Politico trying to say there's only one kind of Islam and that it's the kind that advocates blowing people up in the name of the religion? If not, how to explain this characterization of opposition? And then what's with the way that Hooper quote was written up? Apparently Politico just accepts the position of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The paper doesn't mention that the group was an unindicted co-conspirator in a case involving the funding of a terrorist group, of course. The media never seem interested in that story. It merely accepts the charge that Republicans are bashing Islam and Muslims and that tea partiers are bigots. Note that the Frum quote doesn't substantiate the theme of the story either.

The article then tells us that the mainstream opposition to the mosque has worked to insulate the movement from crazies. Finally we get a quote from an honest-to-God Republican official:

Leading New York Republicans acknowledge a shift from the Bush years, but say Muslim leaders, not Republicans, are to blame.

"George Bush made every attempt to reach out," said Rep. Pete King, a leading critic of the mosque project. "The Muslim community did not reciprocate, did not respond. After Sept. 11, some of them became entrenched and really didn't know how to cope.

"Somehow the leadership in the community does not impel them forward to be more part of the community. That's my reading of it," said King, who also noted that sensitivities involving the site are far deeper, and more real, than many are willing to recognize beyond the boundaries of New York.

I mean, I guess criticism of how well Muslim leadership is engaging the community could be construed as anti-Muslim, but only if you really stretch the definition.

Next we get some fascinating commentary from the sister of one of the pilots who was brutally killed on September 11. She actually discusses the big elephant in the room -- whether we're seeing a "clash of civilizations." But even she defends peaceful American Muslims. Her comments beg for additional reporting on the issue and provoke some soul-searching about whether Western concepts can withstand conflict with cultures that have different foundational values. I'd love a story that explores whether and how our laws will protect this country from some of the turmoil we see in Europe and other areas. But in any case, even if Burlingame is a Republican, she's not a Republican official. Neither is the New York City firefighter who distinguishes "radical" Muslims from others.

Here's one data point:

Whatever the cause of the shift, the end of the Bush-era outreach aligns with the views of much of the Republican base. A Pew poll found last year that 55 percent of conservative Republicans believe Islam encourages violence.

Politico didn't mention that the figure was down 13 percentage points since 2007. Of course, here's another data point from a Pew poll from two weeks ago: "Roughly three-in-four [Pakistanis] endorse the death penalty for those who leave Islam." Which is, well, violent and clearly related to some form of Islam.

What else about the piece? Well the most recent Republican president is, in a dramatic shift from the media coverage he received during his presidency, feted for all the wonderful things he did in defense of Islam (e.g. "a less-remembered element of his legacy is the battle he fought within the Republican Party on Islam's behalf.") The story reaches back to June 2002 to find a comment from someone who is described as a "key segment of the Republican base" who was critical of Islam. Yeah, breaking news from 2002, using someone with no official Republican status to support the claim that the "GOP takes harsher stance toward Islam." I mean, really?

We get a quote from Ari Fleischer giving advice to Republican presidential contenders. His comments aren't anti-Islam. Neither are the other Bush aides quoted in the piece. What's more, they praise Obama. Late in the piece we get a description of a television ad that was definitely anti-Islam and grotesquely equates the worst elements of radical Islam with the mosque project. But near as I can tell, the PAC has no official GOP status.

NEW YORK - MAY 25: Opponents of a proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero hold signs during a community board meeting to debate the issue in lower Manhattan May 25, 2010 in New York City. The plan to build the Islamic cultural center -- which is so close to the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that debris from one of the hijacked planes smashed through the roof of the existing building there -- is surrounded by controversy, and politicians and activists are preparing on both sides of the debate. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Finally we get a quick look at some people Politico believes may run for president next year.

Sarah Palin is quoted calling on peaceful Muslims to "refudiate" the mosque, so while she clearly invented a new word, she's not anti-Islam in general. Then Newt Gingrich is quoted saying that no mosque should be built near Ground Zero until Saudi Arabia allows churches and synagogues. Which is definitely anti-Saudi, but not anti-Islam. Likewise, other "contenders" limit their comments to the Cordoba initiative, not Islam in general. The piece ends with a quote from Mike Huckabee that seems to be clipped to make it seem as bad as possible. I think my general dislike of Huckabee is a matter of record here, and precisely because of religious liberty issues like this, but he deserves to be quoted fairly. Here's how Politico puts it:

"Is it just that we can offend Americans and Christians, but not foreigners and Muslims?" he asked.

I was curious about the quote so I tried to listen to it in the original broadcast. I was unable to, but found this:

"Even if the Muslims have the right to build it, don't they do more to serve the public interest by exercising the responsible judgment to not build it, given that it's really offensive to most New Yorkers and Americans? Or is it just that we can offend Americans and Christians, but not foreigners and Muslims?"

I still disagree with it, but it's certainly important to note that Huckabee is distinguishing between the right to build the mosque and the idea that it would not be responsible to do so. What's more, it makes it seem less like he's equating foreigners with Muslims (and Americans with Christians) except insofar as elite opinion is concerned about causing offense.

We have a situation where nearly 70 percent of Americans are telling pollsters that they oppose construction of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. I don't agree, but I sure would like coverage that seeks to explore why that might be without resorting to lazy accusations of bigotry and ignorance. I think I'm right but I have enough regard for my fellow Americans to find this disdainful coverage to be beyond the pale. What's more, I worry that further unfair coverage will only lead to greater unrest that could seriously harm the civic fabric of our country.

For a much better version of the same article, check out this Wall Street Journal piece that manages to stay on track while discussing the political issues in play.

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