In August of 2006, after the U.K. thwarted terror attacks planned by al-Qaeda-inspired fanatics, George W. Bush remarked that the U.S. and its allies were "at war with Islamic fascists." Bush’s use of the term, previously limited primarily to the sweatier precincts of the right-wing blogosphere, struck Muslims as deeply offensive, heralding an era in which the U.S. viewed itself as at war not with murderers who perverted a religion, but that religion itself. When the Bush White House tried to correct the error — even it recognized that the U.S. shouldn’t be at war with over a billion Muslims — prominent conservative commentators derided his efforts as undue deference to extremists. Such was the tone in this country that when a Muslim, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, was elected to Congress later that year, Glenn Beck demanded that Ellison "prove" he was "not working with our enemies."

I happened to be in Dearborn, Mich., the oldest Arab-American community in the U.S., working on a story shortly after Bush gave that statement, and practically every Muslim I spoke with brought it up — usually unprompted — to discuss, with great anguish, how it implicitly drove a wedge between their Islamic and their American identities. Such alienation — in the name of fighting terrorism! — was not merely at odds with American values, it irresponsibly invited millions of Muslims living as productive American citizens to turn their backs on their country. It didn’t treat U.S. Muslims as an at-risk population that needed protection from extremists, it treated them as potential targets of government harassment, presuming their unproven guilt. David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency scholar-practitioner, has written an eloquent book about the consequences of such a mistake.

In Cairo, Obama sought to fix that mistake, singling out the polyglot, internally-diverse American Muslim communities as an exhibit in his broader narrative of U.S.-Islamic harmony. And in doing so, he called out the anti-Islamic bigots in America. al-Qaeda’s provocations, "led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights," he said. "So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity." He might have been talking about the Fox News primetime lineup. Glenn Beck, of course, is nowhere near as dangerous or as virulent as Osama bin Laden, but for the U.S. to act as if it’s blameless in the post-9/11 divisions between the U.S. and the Islamic world is irresponsible and counterproductive.

Something that’s going to go undernoticed in the speech is that Obama indicated he’ll relax Bush-era restrictions on Muslim charitable giving:

Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That’s why I’m committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.

A lot of work is going to need to go into establishing what exactly Obama means here. Some U.S. Muslim charities have been convicted of funnelling money to terrorist organizations, primarily against Israel. Some of the cases, however, have apparently been created on the basis of illegal surveillance, as lawyers for the al-Haramain charity contest. The issue, however, speaks directly to whether the government will compel American Muslims to choose between different aspects of their identity or embrace them as American citizens.

Obama has given his answer, telling the Muslim world that it shares with the U.S. a tradition
of "justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." It was fitting, then, for Obama to reference Ellison — and implicitly rebuke Ellison’s detractors — in a brief passage:

When the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.

Ellison’s oath-swearing was the subject of a brief but intense right-wing fury. Obama’s speech sought to put an end to the whole ugly era in which the election of a Muslim to high office is viewed as anything other than a testament to the promise of America.

Crossposted to The Streak.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman