Does Obama need to speak more harshly about Islam?

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Nov. 14 2009 7:50 AM

Obama's Muslim Problem

Has he been too conciliatory?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

When it comes to any issue that involves Islam, President Obama starts with an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that he's seen as sympathetic to Muslims. The disadvantage is also that he's seen as sympathetic to Muslims.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

With a Muslim name, African Muslim ancestry on his father's side, and the experience of growing up in Indonesia for part of his childhood, Obama understands Islam better than any previous American president. This gives him an opportunity, which he has seized, to try to defuse Muslim hostility and pursue a less acrimonious relationship with Muslim nations. But 11 percent of the public continues to believe that the president is himself a Muslim. Though this is untrue and raises the question Colin Powell asked—so what if he were?—the president's heritage feeds a broader suspicion that he is too casual about the threat from America's Islamist enemies.

Obama's challenge has always been to get the benefit of his special relationship with Islam while containing the political hazards it brings. With Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's murdering rampage at Fort Hood, that balancing act just got a lot harder. Before Fort Hood, the president had mainly called for conciliation. In his first official interview as president, with the Arabic news network Al Arabiya, Obama said: "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy." He subsequently developed that theme in several speeches, including his June address at Cairo University, when he asked for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world."

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With the toll of Americans killed in Iraq dropping and the domestic fear of terrorism in decline, such sentiments played reasonably well at home. But the context of Obama's Islamic rapprochement was shifting even before Fort Hood. American casualties in Afghanistan have more than doubled over the past year. In the past several months, officials have also interrupted a rash of domestic terror plots. These include four men accused of planning to attack synagogues and shoot down military aircraft in Newburgh, N.Y.; an Afghan man charged with making bombs in Colorado; an alleged attempt by a Jordanian teenager to blow up a 60-story skyscraper in Dallas; and a Boston-area man's alleged plot to attack a shopping mall. Obama's olive-branch strategy may make America safer over the long term. In the short term, there's no empirical evidence that it has done so.

With the massacre in Texas, Obama now confronts something that Bush did not face in the years after Sept. 11—not just a major act of domestic terrorism but one struck from inside our security apparatus. Fort Hood does much more serious damage to Obama's premise that greater friendliness toward Islam is a viable strategy for countering the Islamist threat. If the warning signs flashing from Nidal Hasan were ignored, the desire to avoid appearing prejudiced or unfair to Muslims may have been partly to blame. And this points to Obama's Muslim disadvantage. Almost immediately after the shooting, he began facing renewed accusations that he didn't take the radical Islamist threat to American security—at home or in Afghanistan—seriously enough.

In his artful eulogy at the Nov. 10 memorial service at Fort Hood, Obama managed to balance the pressure to show toughness with his conciliatory approach. Without using the words Islam or Muslim, the president made clear what kind of fanaticism he was talking about. After stating that "no faith justifies" murder, he distinguished between America's tradition of religious tolerance and the religious extremism implicated in the killings. "We're a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses," he said. "And instead of claiming God for our side, we remember Lincoln's words, and always pray to be on the side of God."

Obama is right to continue emphasizing the all-important distinction between religious views compatible with democratic pluralism and those that aren't. As he deals with the fallout of the attack, he must continue to separate Islamic extremism from Islam as a whole. But his words at Fort Hood, while comforting, do not really come to grips with the problem. America does not face a threat from the perversion of faith in general. We face a threat from the perversion of one faith in particular. The president needs to dip into his reservoir of good will to remind mainstream Muslims of their special responsibility. If militant Islamism is a distortion of their moderate beliefs, only their beliefs can defeat it.

A version of this article also appears in this week's issue of Newsweek.

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