Mitt, Muslims and the Mosque
As the planned "Ground Zero" mosque passed a key hurdle today, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have emerged as its most vocal critics on the right. But while Gingrich called it "an offensive act" which Palin asked the Muslim faithful to "refudiate," Mitt Romney's predictable path to opposition may best capture the fetid state of the Republican culture war. After all, Romney loves "the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims," just not in lower Manhattan.
For Romney, the Ground Zero mosque story is full of ironies large and small. (The coincidences include the Cordoba Initiative's purchase of the former Burlington Coat Factory property, a company owned by the very Bain Capital firm founded by Mitt Romney in 1984.) Even more ironic - and disturbing - is that the episode recalls Romney's 2005 call for unprecedented surveillance of Muslim places of worship in the United States. As the Washington Post described his appearance at the right-wing Heritage Foundation:
After asking whether students from "terrorist-sponsored countries" should be tracked more closely in the United States, Romney asked: "How about people who are in settings -- mosques, for instance -- that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror?
"Are we monitoring that?" Romney continued, according to a video posted on the foundation's Web site. "Are we wiretapping? Are we following what's going on? Are we seeing who's coming in, who's coming out?"
But the most striking aspect of Romney's opposition to the mosque is its "refudiation" of the religious freedom he claimed to champion during his presidential campaign.
Facing lingering suspicion from Republican primary voters about his own Mormon faith, candidate Romney in December 2007 tried to address the issue head-on. Hoping for a repeat of John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech to the Southern Baptists, Romney in his "Faith in America" address sought to walk a tightrope, proclaiming his own religion's just place in the American pantheon of faith without in any way describing it. Ironically, Romney took pains to sing the praises of the rites (and stereotypes) of other faiths while excluding his own:
"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."
Alas, his commitment to religious freedom and pluralism lasted about as long as it took Mitt Romney to utter the words.
Like George H.W. Bush before him ("No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.") Romney insisted atheists ("Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom") have no place in the American community. And Muslims, he made clear, would have no place in President Romney's cabinet.
As Mansoor Ijaz wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in November 2007:
I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that "jihadism" is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, "...based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration."
Romney's disturbing exclusionary math was doubly-ironic. After all, there are roughly the same number of Jews and Muslims - and his fellow Mormons - in the United States. (Despite Romney's protestations that he was misquoted, Ijaz stands by his account.)
As it turns out, Romney's difficulties with Islam stem from his shocking insistence on conflating all Muslims into a single jihadist threat. In May 2007, Romney alarmingly - and erroneously - equated Sunni and Shiite, friend and foe, the guilty and the innocent across the Islamic world. (Ironically, his enemies list included the Muslim Brotherhood, 10 of whose members have been invited to President Obama's speech in Cairo last year.)
"But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there's going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate."
(Even regarding that "one person, Osama Bin Laden," Romney struggled. After insisting in May 2007 that "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," Romney reversed course just three days later and declared of Bin Laden, " He's going to pay, and he will die.")
With so many potential enemies, it's no wonder Mitt Romney announced during a May 2007 Republican presidential candidates forum:
"Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo."
As it turned out, Romney wasn't the only Republican spouting the "Islamofascism" talking point. But by the fall of 2007, Mitt expanded his umbrella to include Iran. In an October 2007 campaign ad simply titled, "Jihad," Romney amazingly explained that Shiite Iran wanted to join Sunni Muslims in extending their dominion over the entire world:
"We can and will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons...It's this century's nightmare, jihadism - violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism. Their goal is to unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate."
That doubtless came as a surprise to the mullahs in Tehran.
(Sadly, Romney's grandstanding on Iran got him in trouble repeatedly through the 2008 campaign. In September 2007, Romney called on the United Nations to not merely ban Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from speaking to the world body, but to indict him on war crimes charges as well. That pandering to hardliners followed Romney's catastrophic call that February for state governments to disinvest their holdings in companies doing business with Tehran. His crusade foundered within 24 hours when it was revealed Romney's old employer, Bain & Co. had extensive links to recent Iranian business deals. Romney's feeble response? "This is something for now-forward.")
And so it goes. In a speech at the Heritage Foundation, Mitt Romney preemptively blasted President Obama's June 2009 Cairo address, declaring, "I take issue with President Obama's recent tour of apology." Appearing later on NBC's Today Show, Romney added that there's nothing wrong with "showing our respect for the people in the world of Islam."
Sadly for Mitt Romney, respect, like charity, begins at home.
In the mean time, the former Massachusetts Governor would do well to remember the words of another Bay State leader, one who made it to the White House. "Today, I may be the victim," JFK told the Baptist ministers in 1960, "but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril."