By Samuel G. Freedman
Sep 8, 2012
In the coming days, the calendar will bring the anniversaries of two signal events. One, of course, is Sept. 11, a Tuesday this year, as it was in 2001, when Al Qaeda terrorists in four hijacked planes killed more than 3,000 Americans. With public memorial services and private tears, those deaths will be recalled and mourned.
The other anniversary is of the visit President George W. Bush made to a Washington mosque just six days after the attack, where he spoke eloquently against the harassment of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States and about the need to respect Islam.
This act of leadership and statesmanship, however, has all but vanished from the national collective memory. It deserves, instead, to be noted and heeded and esteemed.
In its immediate moment, Mr. Bush’s appearance at the Islamic Centre of Washington may have helped to quell vigilante assaults on American Muslims and on those, like Sikhs, who were mistaken for them. At the policy level, the president’s words also served notice that unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbour, he would not intern or in any way collectively punish innocent American citizens who happened to share a religion or ethnicity with foreign foes.
After hailing American Muslims as “friends” and “taxpaying citizens” in his comments at the mosque, Mr. Bush went on to say: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.” He quoted from the Koran: “In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil.” Then he continued in his own words: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
Eleven years after the fact, Mr. Bush has been treated like a prophet without honor in his own land. He was barely mentioned at the Republican convention last week, and former presidential candidates like Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann have regularly inveighed against Muslims. The only allusions to Mr. Bush at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week were for the war in Iraq and the economic collapse that struck in his final months in office.
Yet there was always another side to Mr. Bush, present in his self-definition as a “compassionate conservative,” in his deep faith and respect for all religions. He was probably the most colour-blind Republican president since Lincoln, appointing Hispanic and black Americans to meaningful cabinet positions — national security adviser, secretary of state, secretary of education, attorney general.
During Mr. Bush’s campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000, he spoke at a mosque, making him the first candidate in either party to do so. During a debate against his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, he denounced the profiling of Arab-American and Muslim-American airline passengers. Mr. Bush’s appointment schedule on Sept. 11, 2001, until tragedy intervened, included a 3 p.m. meeting with a delegation of American Muslim leaders.
“His entire concept of human liberty cannot be understood apart from his elemental view of the spiritual nature of all men and women,” said Tim Goeglein, a White House staff member involved in planning the mosque visit and author of “The Man in the Middle,” about the role of religion in the Bush administration. “This is one of the very important narratives of the Bush presidency.”
As Mr. Bush recounted in his own book “Decision Points,” in the days after Sept. 11, he was disturbed by reports of bias crimes against American Muslims. And he had heard firsthand accounts of the Japanese-American internment from one of its victims — Norman Y. Mineta, a Democrat who served as Mr. Bush’s transportation secretary.
Out of that combination of historical perspective and visceral decency, Mr. Bush sent instructions to the White House’s Office of Public Liaison to arrange for him to visit a mosque. For the men and women in that office, the stakes were instantly clear.
“In the aftermath of 9/11, when every move the president made was being watched extremely closely, it was important to demonstrate that American Muslims were not the same people who attacked the U.S.,” said Matt Smith, the liaison office’s associate director at the time. “When you show that these people are Americans, it goes a long way.”
One of several Muslim members of the White House staff was Suhail Khan, who worked in the liaison office and took a leading role in deciding which mosque the president should visit. The Islamic Centre of Washington struck him as nearly ideal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had laid its cornerstone in 1957, and its congregation included diplomats, business executives and other professionals. Unlike several other Washington mosques, it had been built for Muslim worship, not converted from a previous use. So television and still cameras would be able to capture the image of an American president in a visibly, indelibly Islamic setting.
Within about 24 hours, the mosque was checked by the Secret Service for security, a briefing memo was prepared for the president and an advance team was dispatched to the Islamic centre. Then, on the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 17, Mr. Bush and all the attendant news media went to the mosque.
Mr. Bush removed his shoes, in accordance with Islamic practice, before entering the mosque’s prayer room. He met for about 45 minutes with leaders of several American Muslim organizations, including Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Afterward, standing before a tile wall of characteristically Islamic patterns and near a woman wearing a hijab, Mr. Bush, speaking in a grave and subdued tone, issued his appeal for tolerance and unity.
“I think in those days, so many people here and around the world watched that clip,” Mr. Awad said recently. “And it should be played over and over to remind people that what made America great is respect for religious freedom and zero tolerance for hate crimes against innocent people.”