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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pluribuses, Unums, Kites, and Anchors

The Park51 ("Ground Zero Mosque") battle simmers on, but I am optimistic that it will not boil over. This is the frustrating and fulfilling magic that is America— an endless series of fits and starts, a dance of overreaching pride and humble assent, from abolition to women's suffrage to racial equality to gay rights to an Islam-American embrace. You change the thermostat, but within moments it feels uncomfortable. But, you can't help but smirk. Of course, if it were a smaller country, it would be more nimble, and maybe always feel comfortable. But, America is inconceivably huge, with over 300 million people. With so many sensitivities, rodeo clowns, legacies, sweet‑tooths, interests, southern drawls, histories, pie-eating champions, and imams, what do you think will happen?

The conservative-leaning New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote of two Americas, one based on the Constitution that is open to all ethnic groups, divisions, and differences, and another based on culture that gravitates toward an English‑speaking, Protestant-Judeo-Christian identity. America's official seal states E pluribus unum, or "Out of many, one."  Douthat argues that the first group protects e pluribus while the second creates unum. Is this the reason why so many Muslims across Europe feel like just that— Muslims— while so many in America feel that they are Muslims and then so much else? Life is much better in 3D than in 2D.

I was excited about President Obama's artful defense of Park51 at the start of Ramadan only to be deflated the next day when he about-faced on what we all know he, in his heart of hearts, believes. The libertarian Tunku Varadarajan called Obama's shiftiness cowardly, reducing him from "a brave man standing against intolerance to an insecure one wishing to be all things to all people." Varadarajan proclaimed what Obama should have said: "America will let a mosque be built near ground zero—yes, hallowed ground, defiled by Islamist terrorists—because we are a great nation, more tolerant, more civilized, more open to debate and to resolution of conflict by words, more enlightened, elevated, proud, polished, humane, unafraid, accommodating, gracious, and resilient than any other place in the world."

Liberal scholar and writer Peter Beinart ironically wrote, "I pine for George W.Bush." Bush at the end was reviled around the world, but he was actually big-hearted, a glowing optimist who connected well with people. But, his incompetence in foreign policy (aside from Africa) and macroeconomics blunted his humanist worldview. Particularly, he did not understand that Saddam Hussein's Baathists were actually secular and Al Qaeda's Salafists were fundamentalist. He followed a philosophy based on hope with a policy based on monolithic fear.

Beinart emphasizes that Bush was the one who pushed for open borders with Mexico believing that "Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande River." He also repeatedly referred to Islam as a "religion of peace" and adopted a very universalist, optimistic, pro-Muslim stature. But now, hearts have joined heads in the wrong place. Newt Gingrich, the supposed intellectual wheel of the GOP, recently asserted that "there should be no mosque near ground zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia". Trying to understand things like this is like wrestling with Jell‑O, with motives and treadmill logic so mangled and counterintuitive, first declarations of the Constitution and Bill of Rights as sacred (whenever convenient) and then rumblings about apologists, elitists, "peaceful Muslims," and triumphalism— it's hard to even know where to start. Maybe, we are not trying to emulate Saudi Arabia?

While we all get muddy in this tug-of-war, I am still convinced we'll end up in the right direction. I am convinced because of two hopes— one is a kite and the other an anchor. The kite is Hailey Woldt, a young, ambitious woman, a blue‑eyed Catholic graduate of Georgetown's School ofForeign Service. She completed field work in eight Muslim countries, including Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia and criss-crossed America as part of the "Journey Into America" film project. In her early twenties, she is now the research director of Georgetown's Global Initiative for Cultural Diplomacy and is cultivating Muslim-Christian dialogue in places as far off as Egypt, Morocco, and China. Far more than an already outworn Manhattan mosque debate, she represents the energy and youth that will animate future America.

The anchor is a statue of Thomas Jefferson erected in 1910 on the University of Virginia campus. A tablet at the foot of the statue reads, "Religious Freedom, 1776 –God, Jehovah, Brahma, Atma, Ra, Allah." The foresight of over 230 years. Mindboggling. Only in America.