Reviving Us-Versus-Them Politics

Mosques in America: Protests, Arguments and Attacks. Click to view photos. Timothy A. Clary / AFP-Getty Images

In defending the right of Muslims to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Ground Zero, President Obama said the right thing, but sometimes the right thing is not enough. Perhaps forgetting he is no longer a constitutional law professor and that his words would be amplified by the context in which he said them, Obama seemed genuinely surprised at the parsing of his words, and the debate over whether his subsequent rumination about separating the "right" to build from the wisdom of the project was nothing more than the age-old political dodge of trying to have it both ways.

Obama took sides whether he intended to or not, and then he appeared to waffle, disappointing his supporters and handing his critics the mother of all wedge issues, Islamic extremism on the eve of 9/11 and a midterm election that could return Congress to the GOP. Republicans along with some spineless Democrats are riding the wave of fear, whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment, and sparking a reign of terror with Quran burnings set for the 9/11 anniversary.

Republicans screaming the loudest about what they say is Muslim "insensitivity" to the feelings of the 9/11 families don't say how they would block construction. And the families everybody claims to speak for are divided, with 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows strongly backing the mosque but getting scant media attention. Meanwhile, there's the professional right, with Liz Cheney, daughter of Vice President Cheney, stoking the passions of 9/11 through the group she runs, Keep America Safe (and scared), with a two-minute YouTube video titled We Remember.

The animosity toward Muslims is worse today than it was after 9/11 when President Bush worked hard to limit the blame to Al Qaeda and not spread collective guilt throughout the Muslim world. Republicans are so eager to score big gains in November that they have no shame about what they are doing to trash American values of religious diversity and tolerance, and the potential fallout of what this sharp turn to the right could mean for national security and Obama's fragile efforts to reconcile with the Muslim world.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that nearly one in five Americans (18 percent) says Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. Only about a third of adults (34 percent) say Obama is a Christian, down from 48 percent in 2009. It's tempting to assume these results were influenced by the inflammatory debate about the mosque, but the survey was completed in early August, before Obama weighed in on the controversy. "I'm not shocked," says historian Rick Shenkman, author of Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. During the 2008 presidential primaries, 7 percent of those polled in Texas, Florida, and Ohio thought Obama was a Muslim and 40 percent didn't know what his religion was, "a near majority guilty of gross ignorance."

McCain campaign attempts to portray Obama as "the other" and a stranger in our midst weren't enough to derail voters from electing Obama, but those negative sentiments have since taken hold in the context of economic anxiety and Obama's activist approach to government. "The first black president is upending the old order," says Shenkman, "and to people who feel threatened by Obama, it's comforting to see him as the other. It's a category baked into the American culture—us and them."

Bush reveled in us-versus-them politics and could have sent the country into an anti-Muslim craze after 9/11. But he knew there were bigger stakes than the next election, and he did a really good job tamping down the caveman reactions. Conservatives obediently fell in line behind one of their own. And that's the difference, says Shenkman. When Obama speaks out on the mosque, his moral authority is suspect in a way that Bush's wasn't. Bush came from an old-line Protestant family. "Nobody could accuse him of carrying water for his own side. He was perceived as disinterested. Obama, with a Muslim father, is not."

During tough economic times, people are more susceptible to conspiracy theories, xenophobia, anything that provides emotional comfort. Politicians are always responding to the public, but they've got to have the basic material to work with, and the questions about Obama's legitimacy as president, and as an American, are feeding the debate over the mosque. Obama's hands are tied, says Shenkman. The more he speaks out the more he incites questions about himself and his legitimacy. "Public opinion is not like clay that you can mold," says Shenkman. "It's a wave, and you can push on a wave to make it bigger."

Public opinion may be turning thanks to Newt Gingrich invoking Nazi comparisons, never a good idea. Some cooler heads in the GOP have begun to speak out. With Obama on vacation in Martha's Vineyard for 10 days, maybe everyone can take a deep breath and remember that freedom is more than just another name for nothing left to lose.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.