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The Elephant in the Room: Islamism and appeasement

Obama is abandoning religious freedom to placate oppressive Muslim regimes.

In a speech in Cairo about a year ago, President Obama sought a "new beginning" for the United States and the world's Muslims. In pursuit of this initiative, Obama gave his first interview as president to Al-Arabiya television, apologized for America's past behavior, bowed before Saudi royalty, sided with the Palestinians against our ally Israel, did next to nothing to forestall Iran's development of nuclear arms, and released a National Defense Strategy last week that ignores the connection between Islamism and terrorism.

In last year's Cairo speech, however, Obama at least gave the impression that he would confront Islam on one key front: religious freedom. "People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul," he declared.

A Pew Research Center report released several months after the president's address found that the predominantly Muslim countries Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan were - to no one's surprise - among the nations most politically and socially hostile to religious freedom.

So what has the president done to put teeth in his Cairo rhetoric? Less than nothing.

According to the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's most recent annual report, the administration's promotion of religious freedom is "missing the mark." USA Today reported bluntly that the commission had "blasted" Obama for "softening his stand on protecting the right to one's faith at a time when religious persecution is on the rise."

The commission's report highlights Obama's shift from his principled Cairo rhetoric to a more conciliatory approach. For example, the administration now talks of "freedom of worship" instead of "religious freedom" - a lowering of the standard. Commission chairman Leonard Leo said that, "in a world of foreign policy and diplomacy, where every word is chosen to convey meaning and interest," the new terminology "could be taken by some in the world community as a signal that freedom of religion is not a priority for the administration. ... Freedom of worship is only one aspect of religious freedom."

What could Obama do? How about finally filling the State Department post of ambassador at large for religious freedom? The position has somehow escaped the attention of a president who hasn't hesitated to expand the federal workforce.

Next, rather than defining religious freedom downward to placate nations that restrict it, Obama should emphasize to the State Department and the Muslim world that even the United Nations construes this right broadly. Article 18 of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights sets out a definition of every person's religious freedom that "includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."

And instead of apologizing for America, the president could proudly note the country's commitment to freedom of religion for millions of American Muslims. Western tolerance of Muslims did not happen overnight; it took centuries for Christianity to develop it. It is time for Islam to begin the same process.

Yet Muslim countries under sharia law continue to denigrate unbelievers by labeling them with the term kafir, meaning "infidel" or, more broadly, "other." The administration fails to understand that these countries' laws against apostasy, blasphemy, conversion, and defamation have the effect over time of making moderate Muslims who disagree with them targets of discrimination, violence, and sometimes murder.

Are Obama's efforts to make friends in Muslim countries working? A Gallup poll released last week suggests that his charm offensive is a bust in some key Muslim nations.

The poll examined public approval of U.S. leadership in those countries today compared with that under President George W. Bush in 2008. The approval rating in Iraq, at 30 percent, was down from 35 percent under Bush. Lebanon's, at 25 percent, was the same as under Bush. Egypt's and the Palestinian territories', at 19 and 16 percent respectively, were up from 6 and 13 percent.

Our chances of making progress in the Middle East will improve as soon as President Obama understands the following brute fact: the hostility between the United States and increasingly radicalized Muslims is not about what we do, but what they believe.