The President and Religious Pluralism

Ian Reifowitz is Associate Professor at Empire State College, part of the State University of New York.

America is at war with Islam.  At least that’s what some have declared.  President Obama has countered that in fact we are at war with a specific group of radical fundamentalist Muslims.  More profoundly, however, he has repeatedly defined Americanness itself as the antithesis of a fundamentalism that feeds on a clash of civilizations and cultures.

At Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan on March 28, Obama contrasted the concept of a pluralistic democracy represented by the U.S. with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, whose worldview rejects pluralism as an abomination that thwarts the purity its adherents seek.  Obama extolled the troops for demonstrating “what’s possible when people come together, not based on color or creed, not based on faith or station, but based on a commitment to serve together, to bleed together and to succeed together as one people, as Americans.”  He then juxtaposed the core principles of the U.S. and those of its enemies, whom he defined in terms of their fundamentalism:  “But all of you want to build—and that is something essential about America.  They’ve got no respect for human life.  You see dignity in every human being.  That’s part of what we value as Americans.  They want to drive races and regions and religions apart.  You want to bring people together and see the world move forward together.  They offer fear, in other words, and you offer hope.”

The controversy over the proposed Muslim center two blocks from Ground Zero provided an opportune moment for Obama to highlight this contrast once again, which he did as part of his expression of support for the right to build the center.  At a White House Iftar dinner on August 13, 2010, the president asserted that pluralism is central to how we ought to understand Americanness.  He defined America by our “capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect to those who are different from us.”  Then, echoing his Bagram speech, he defined America as “a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in contrast to the religious conflict that persists around the globe.”  Going further, Obama contrasted the key principles of the U.S. with those expressed by al Qaeda and other violent extremists who practice, in his words, “not Islam [but instead] a gross distortion of Islam.”  He highlighted America’s democracy, guarantees of freedom, “the laws that we apply without regard to race or religion; wealth or status.  Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect to those who are different from us—a way of life that stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on [September 11, 2001], and who continue to plot against us today.”

A Florida pastor’s call to make September 11, 2010, “International Burn a Qur’an Day” prompted Obama to use that day to reiterate some of the above themes, and to contrast further the fundamental ideals espoused by al Qaeda and the United States.  In remarks delivered at the Pentagon, Obama declared that on 9/11 nine years earlier al-Qaeda had “attacked the very idea of America itself.…They may wish to drive us apart, but we will not give in to their hatred and prejudice.…Those who attacked us sought to demoralize us, divide us, to deprive us of the very unity, the very ideals, that make America America—those qualities that have made us a beacon of freedom and hope to billions around the world.”

Presidents have long spoken in such terms.  In his farewell address, on January 11, 1989, Ronald Reagan called America “a beacon…for all who must have freedom.”  Here Obama is subtly but unmistakably redefining that notion.  Traditionally, people around the world have admired what they see as the freedoms Americans enjoy and the democratic principles on which the U.S. political system rests.  In the Pentagon speech, Obama added another element, emphasizing that America’s democratic values allow us to generate unity while showing respect for diversity.  These values, he argued, mandate that we treat Americans from every background as fully American.  He is defining a twenty-first century “American Mission” according to which the U.S. provides a model not only of democracy as opposed to tyranny, but of a pluralistic democracy as opposed to fundamentalist tyranny.

By presenting America in this way, Obama is recasting the conflicts in which we are engaged.  And he is giving opponents of violent religious extremists something positive with which they can identify.  He is literally rebranding America.  Thus the controversies over building the Muslim center in lower Manhattan and burning Qur’ans are not solely domestic issues.  How we handle them takes on global importance because the U.S. seeks to lead a worldwide anti-fundamentalist (not anti-Islamic) coalition. Whether President Obama succeeds in his rebranding project will help determine whether we live in a world defined by pluralism or one dominated by fundamentalism.  The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

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