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President Obama’s Recent Prayer Breakfast: Demagoguery and Denial

A demagogue is a politician who deliberately makes false claims and distorts facts by using arguments based on emotion, ideological choices, and manipulation rather than reason, logic, and evidence.  President Barack Obama’s demagoguery on the subjects of religion, history, and moral judgment at the National Prayer Breakfast, held on February 5, served as a sobering reminder of a fundamentally flawed White House policy in dealing with Islamic extremism in the Middle East and beyond. 

The current administration’s response to the international problems stemming from Islamic extremism proceeds from the fatuous presupposition that there is no connection between Islamic extremism and Islam.  This position is apparently the result of a presidential decision to prioritize public relations and the administration’s image vis-à-vis what it imagines to be the “Islamic world” over real-world foreign and security policy formulation.  Of course, a policy like the President’s, premised upon the denial of undeniable facts, requires either the looking away from or distortion of undesired historical and current realities and, in their place, the projection of a narrative that gives credence to an otherwise irrational and vacuous approach to a serious problem.  President Obama’s address to a diverse audience of 3,500 people, including guests from around 100 countries, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., exemplified this strategy.

The President chose to use the Prayer Breakfast—a very public and highly publicized annual event, which is actually a series of meetings, luncheons, and dinners, where church and state in the United States have come together since 1953 in a tradition of genial acknowledgment and a show of mutual respect—as a platform to promote his administration’s narrative on Islam and Islamic extremism.  This narrative holds that the fighters of the Islamic State and other extremist Muslims are not legitimate Muslims, have no connection to Islam, insult Islam by invoking Islam’s Prophet Mohammed to justify the perpetration of violence, and act in ways that are contrary to the example of Mohammed’s life and his teachings. 

Many of the participants at the Prayer Breakfast were disturbed by President Obama’s patronizing tone.  Instead of making his case by pointing to those aspects of Islamic history, thought, and creativity that have contributed positively to human civilization, the President offered a scolding, distorted, and denigrating view of Christianity in the distant past as a peculiar defense against popular criticism of Islamic extremism in the present, itself a bizarre position for a sitting president engaged in a nominal war against Islamic extremists (even if he insists on denying the religious identity and religious motives of the belligerents he is fighting).  In his address, President Obama invoked medieval history and moralizing judgment by saying “unless we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” while he ignored violence and terrorism in the name of Mohammed and Islam today.  This demagoguery underscores a multitude of problems, both large and small. 

Unfortunately, President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated that he is unwilling to treat religion seriously as factor in international affairs, let alone to treat religion respectfully at home.  Indeed, this is an approach that applies to the President’s engagement with both Christianity and Islam, the former, which he increasingly relates to with derision, and the latter, which he essentializes with patronizing Orientalism.  The effort to be politically correct about Islam is patronizing and paternalistic because it actually perpetuates the Orientalization of Islam, with all the prejudices that are embedded in Orientalist thinking, meaning a view of Islam and the Middle East that is shaped in a stereotyped way that embodies a colonialist outlook. 

For the President, as a matter of official policy, religion, especially Islam, is something to be ignored.  Of course, President Obama is not alone in this regard.  Being uncomfortable with religion has cut across presidential administrations.  However, President Obama’s determination to disregard historical facts in order to reduce complex problems to hackneyed false morality tales only promotes ignorance and misunderstanding across religious and cultural lines.  Although the President is capable of making some distinctions among Muslims, meaning for him Muslims who do not espouse extremism and violence versus Muslims who in his view are not representative of Islam because they advocate extremism and violence, he is apparently incapable of making any distinctions among Christians. 

When President Obama invoked the Crusades as an example of Christian violence and extremism he made no distinction between Roman Catholic Christians and Orthodox Christians.  The Crusades, as they would eventually take form, were not a Christian project.  The Crusades were a Roman Catholic, Western adventure, which bewildered and alarmed Eastern Christians, who represented the majority of Christians during most of the Middle Ages.  Indeed, Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox Churches in the East, and the Byzantine Empire, were all attacked as aggressively by the Catholic Crusades and suffered more and longer from Roman Catholic extremism, violence, and occupation than did either Muslim Arabs or Turks. 

A prominent historian of the Crusades, Karen Armstrong, notes, “Hostility to Byzantium had long been crucial to the Western identity but during the Second Crusade it reached new heights.  Odo’s [the chaplain to the Franks’ King Louis VII and a participant in the Second Crusade, 1145-1149] measured and elegant pen drips venom every time he mentions the Greeks: he was convinced the West should send out another Crusade to attack Constantinople.  Odo seems to hate the Greeks more than the Muslims.  As the West was apparently gaining in confidence and acquiring a rich and unique culture, it was also growing in intolerance.  Not only were Western Christians finding it impossible to live beside people of other religions; they now wanted to destroy their great Christian neighbor, and one day they would succeed.”    

Applying President Obama’s logic for drawing distinctions among Muslims to Christians, one could argue that Roman Catholic Crusaders were not legitimate Christians because they advocated extremism and violence contrary to the example of Christ’s life and His teachings.  However, such an argument, like the President’s position with respect to Islam and Islamic extremism, would be senseless and intellectually dishonest.  President Obama’s narrative ignores the fact that religion is marked by internal pluralism and oftentimes contradiction, and that actions change over historical time.  It is a mistake to speak about religions and followers monolithically.     

The reality of the Crusades is instructive because it does not fit neatly into the White House’s simplistic, misleading narrative and public relations agenda on religion, history, and moral judgment.  President Obama’s history lesson at the Prayer Breakfast was not merely incomplete and flawed, it relied on a willingness to distort, ignore, and deny facts and complexities to avoid uncomfortable truths.  By contriving to evade reality, the Obama administration squashes opportunities to produce meaningful dialogue and actual problem solving founded on mutual awareness and knowledge among and between Christians and Muslims.  President Obama’s address at the recent National Prayer Breakfast was sadly misguided, not because it offended some Christians, but because, under the guise of tolerance and sensitivity, while actually in pursuit of calculated political ends, it repeated and reinforced the kinds of myths, distortions, and ignorance that divide rather than unite people.           

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.