The New York Times this morning [Nov. 30] has an op-ed by Al Jazeera host Mehdi Hasan, whom I regard as one of the world's best television journalists. Its primary point is one that has been recently promoted by others such as MSNBC's Chris Hayes: namely, that in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush diligently avoided, and even forcefully rejected, the anti-Muslim bigotry and animus now prevalent in the 2016 GOP primary race. Titled "Why I Miss George W. Bush," Hasan's op-ed argues that Bush and his top advisers (such as Karl Rove and Michael Gerson) "understood that demonizing Muslims and depicting Islam as 'the enemy' not only fueled al Qaeda's narrative but also hurt their party's electoral prospects."
There is a significant element of truth to this view, and it's definitely worth pointing out. In my 2007 book that was extremely critical of the Bush presidency, A Tragic Legacy, I described several of Bush's post-9/11 speeches as "resolute, eloquent and even inspiring" because he "repeatedly emphasized that the enemy was defined neither as adherents to Islam nor Middle Eastern countries and their citizens, but instead was a band of fanatics who exploited Islam as a pretext for terrorism and violence." I also praised his September 20, 2001, speech to the nation for including demands that "no one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith," and particularly hailed his September 17 visit to the Islamic Center in Washington to meet with Muslim religious and civic leaders (photo above), after which he said:
"It is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel the same way I do. ... Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America. That's not the America I know. That's not the America I value."
It's easy now to be dismissive of all that as empty rhetoric. But the post-9/11 climate in the U.S. was dangerous for Muslims, and had the U.S. president ignored the potential for mindless vengeance against a small and marginalized minority, or worse, had he stoked it, some extremely ugly and terrorizing sentiments could easily have been unleashed. To see how true that is, consider what the Paris attacks and subsequent exploitation of anti-Muslim sentiment have generated in the U.S. and throughout the West, as exemplified by a horrific incident, captured on video, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, last week where anti-Muslim residents threateningly screamed at a Muslim-American engineer seeking municipal approval for construction of a new mosque.