On Thursday afternoon (or, if you're back in the States, in the wee hours of the morning), President Obama's going to deliver the big speech from a Muslim capital he promised a while back. The speech, which he'll be giving from Cairo University, is part of a larger tour that's also taken him to Saudi Arabia and will end in Europe. You can imagine how the president's opponents are reacting to this trip, and his efforts to reach out to the Muslim world.
The first problem conservatives had was with an interview Obama gave to Canal+, a French television network. During the interview, the president previewed his trip to the Middle East, saying, "one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world."
Naturally, this comment was very quickly twisted into Obama saying only that the U.S. is "one of the largest Muslim countries in the world," something that particularly rankled on the right because he's previously said the U.S. is "no longer just a Christian nation." At the Corner, one of the National Review's blogs, Andy McCarthy wrote, "Do you think Obama would ever call America a Judeo-Christian country? Anyway, maybe we should rewrite our Constitution to make sharia part of our fundamental law, just like the State Department has done in those other Islamic democracies it is building."
At the same time that some of their colleagues distorted the president's words, though, conservative pundits were saying the president had gotten his facts wrong. The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, for instance, commented, "Eight million Muslims seems to be at the high end of estimates of America's Muslim community. That number barely puts the United States in the top 40." (The New Republic's Jason Zengerle does the math a little differently and says Obama's statement is justified; it really is a matter of how you calculate it, but Zengerle's probably reaching.)
Meanwhile, Matt Drudge led his site, throughout the day on Wednesday, with a banner headline reading, "The emergence of Obama's Muslim roots." The message was... unsubtle. Granted, it was more defensible than some of Drudge's usual headlines, if only because he was linking to a post of the same title by ABC News' Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller. Only Tapper and Miller were saying something quite different than that headline would indicate: Since the election, the Obama team has become more willing to discuss the president's Muslim heritage, as it can't be used against him now the way it could have been during the campaign.
Still, at least one veteran of the campaign that Obama defeated is making similar insinuations. The Weekly Standard's Goldfarb, who worked for John McCain last year, noted that in conversation with the king of Saudi Arabia, Obama used a single Arabic word: Shukran, which translates to "thank you." Goldfarb saw something deeper at work:
It seems there is some legitimate confusion on just what languages Obama speaks, and as far as Arabic, the only real hint has came from Nick Kristof, who heard Obama recite the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic and with a "first-rate accent" back in 2007. With even the White House now smearing Obama as a Muslim, one wonders if the president hasn't been concealing some greater fluency with the language of the Koran.
Presumably Obama is familiar with the Muslim call to prayer from having heard it recited five times daily for four years. As for a single word, "thank you," well, I imagine he could have learned that from protocol officers or diplomats.
Or maybe he just knows a single -- and useful -- word of Arabic, even without having "some greater fluency with the language of the Koran." I'll personally admit right now that I know how to ask where the train station is in Japanese, and thank the person who tells me. But I don't speak Japanese! I can also order breakfast in French -- and yet I am not a secret Frenchman. Shocking, I know.