James K. Glassman is a rarity: a Republican who believes, and is willing to say, that President Obama “is the greatest public diplomat we’ve had in decades.”
Glassman, who served as undersecretary for public diplomacy under George W. Bush, also believes that the controversy over the planned Islamic community center will hurt the U.S. image among Muslims abroad. And he believes that Obama’s task, like his predecessor’s, is to replace the conspiratorial narrative about a United States as an enemy of Islam with one in which a tolerant, freedom-loving country does right by Muslims.
The problem—for the White House, for mosque supporters, for basically everyone—is that so few people believe this is possible. Over the weekend, Politico’s Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman pointed out the Republican defenders of the “ground zero mosque” were vastly outnumbered by Republicans who catered to “hostility toward Islam among many Republican voters” and saw openings to attack Democrats over national security. There’s no question that those Republicans are winning the argument. But they’re winning the argument because they’re not the only people who think big shows of American tolerance will fail to stop terrorists from recruiting.
For Republicans who oppose the mosque, the task is simple, if not exactly straightforward: They don’t want a debate about religious freedom in America. They want a debate over whether you trust the Obama administration.
In that sense, they may be getting help from Obama’s supporters, who may have promised too much about his appeal to the Islamic world. Before and after Obama took office, some foreign policy realists said that his election, all by itself, would smooth over relations between America and the “Arab street.” Said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in February 2009: “I do think that with the election of President Obama, there are many changes that are out there and a different image of the United States.” In his first week in office, Obama announced a schedule for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. In June, he gave an address to Muslims in Cairo that was acclaimed by all the right people.
But did this do anything for non-American Muslims or for Americans themselves? The 2009 Arab Opinion Poll, conducted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, showed Obama single-handedly spiking Muslim optimism about American foreign policy up to 51 percent. In the 2010 poll, it fell back to a Bush-level 16 percent. The Obama magic fell flat here, too: In February 2010, a poll for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies found 53 percent of Americans viewing Islam unfavorably.
The bad feelings weren’t all Obama’s fault. They were the result of reality crashing in, of foreign policy remaining a mess. But they’re like the bitterness that Americans feel about the 2009 economic stimulus, which was oversold and has become politically toxic because its success is hard to measure. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the promise of the Cordoba Initiative, the group involved in the planned mosque for Lower Manhattan, is easy for conservatives and Republicans to deride. When Americans are asked to look past their initial reactions and back the building of the mosque because it will send a good message, they’re being asked to believe in a new kind of hope and change.
And that’s pretty much what the new crop of Republicans thinks about the mosque. A lot of their groundwork has been done by political and religious figures whose opinions of Islam—wicked, bent on conquest—were considered fringe in the Bush years and dismissed by his White House. Some of the GOP’s strongest recruits are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who start their discussions of what the Muslim world really thinks with the credibility they earned in the field. They’ve pounced on this issue to make the case that Obama doesn’t take radical Islam seriously enough as a threat.
“I don’t think that this type of pandering improves our image with anyone,” said Ilario Pantano, a congressional candidate in North Carolina who worked in the now-destroyed World Trade Center 4 before joining the Marine Corps. “It suggests that we’re exactly what the radical fringe believes we are, too soft and lethargic to actually defend ourselves. I’m not talking about all Muslims. I’m talking about radicals, and I think it’s clear that this would be a victory for them. I mean, are we going to put up a martyr marker every time one of these terrorists blow themselves up?”
According to Pantano, the Bush administration’s softer approach to Islam—the president’s repeated insistence that Islam is a “religion of peace”—made perfect sense. The problem, he said, was that it lulled Americans into a “false sense of security” and failed to inform them that the goal of radical Islam was not just terrorism, but the imposition of Sharia law. Retired Lt. Col. Allen West, who is making a well-funded run for Congress in Florida, seconded Pantano.
“When Bush made that statement, he was inaccurate,” said West. “It showed he had not yet done a good and proper study of the issue, and the next thing you knew his statement was being twisted. I think you’ve got to have a better understanding of the culture and mentality of radical Islam than that. Tolerance is fine. When tolerance is a one-way street, it leads to cultural suicide.”
The sudden, news-cycle-devouring omnipresence of the “ground zero mosque” isn’t necessarily bad news for Democrats. Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist argued that it had created, out of thin air, a way for embattled Democrats to distract voters from their economic record and create a new, flashy difference between them and President Obama. (It’s exactly what Sen. Harry Reid tried on Monday.)
But the mosque furor is devastating for the people who worry about how the Muslim world interprets the news coming out of the United States. It was hard enough before, Glassman says—the majority of world Muslims are willing to believe the worst about how Americans view their faith. When America responded to the 2004 tsunami in devastated parts of Indonesia, one popular conspiracy theory suggested that America was on a mission of conquest.
“The most powerful narrative that the United States has to fight, among Muslims, is this idea that we’re out to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity,” Glassman says. “When you view the world through a particular prism, it doesn’t take much for an event to play into your narrative. Any incident will do.”