“We will convey,” said Barack Obama to the Turkish Parliament Monday, “our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world — including in my own country.”
Undeniably the Islamic faith has done a great deal to shape the world – a statement that makes no value judgment about exactly how it has shaped the world. It has formed the dominant culture in what is known as the Islamic world for centuries. But what on earth could Obama mean when he says that Islam has also “done so much” to shape his own country?
Unless he considers himself an Indonesian, Obama’s statement was extraordinarily strange. After all, how has the Islamic faith shaped the United States? Were there Muslims along Paul Revere’s ride, or standing next to Patrick Henry when he proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death”? Were there Muslims among the framers or signers of the Declaration of Independence, which states that all men – not just Muslims, as Islamic law would have it – are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Were there Muslims among those who drafted the Constitution and vigorously debated its provisions, or among those who enumerated the Bill of Rights, which guarantees – again in contradiction to the tenets of Islamic law – that there should be no established national religion, and that the freedom of speech should not be infringed?
There were not.
Did Muslims play a role in the great struggle over slavery that defined so much of our contemporary understandings of the nature of this republic and of the rights of the individual within it? They did not. Did the Islamic faith shape the way the United States responded to the titanic challenges of the two World Wars, the Great Depression, or the Cold War? It did not. Did the Islamic faith, with its legal apparatus that institutionalizes discrimination against non-Muslims, shape the civil rights movement in the United States? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated equality of access to public facilities – a hard-won victory that came at a great cost, and one that Muslim groups have tried to roll back in the United States recently. One notable example of such attempts was the alcohol-in-cabs controversy at the Minneapolis-St. Paul international airport, when Muslim cabdrivers began to refuse service to customers who were carrying alcohol, on Islamic religious grounds. The core assumption underlying this initiative – that discrimination on the basis of religion is justified – cut right to the heart of the core principle of the American polity, that “all men are created equal,” that is, that they have a right to equal treatment in law and society.
Surveying the whole tapestry of American history, one would be hard-pressed to find any significant way in which the Islamic faith has shaped the United States in terms of its governing principles and the nature of American society. Meanwhile, there are numerous ways in which, if there had been a significant Muslim presence in the country at the time, some of the most cherished and important principles of American society and law may have met fierce resistance, and may never have seen the light of day.
So in what way has the Islamic faith shaped Obama’s country? The most significant event connected to the Islamic faith that has shaped the character of the United States was the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Those attacks have shaped the nation in numerous ways: they’ve led to numerous innovations in airline security, which in generations to come – if today’s politically correct climate continues to befog minds -- may be added to future versions of the fanciful “1001 Muslim Inventions” exhibition. The Islamic faith has shaped the U.S. since 9/11 in leading to the spending of billions on anti-terror measures, and to the ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to Guantanamo, and to so many features of the modern political and social landscape that they cannot be enumerated within the space of a single article.
Of course, it is certain that Obama had none of that in mind. But what could he possibly have had in mind? His statement was either careless or ignorant, or both – not qualities we need in a Commander-in-Chief even in the best of times.
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