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Let's be clear: The Obama Crusades controversy is over whether it's okay to hate Muslims

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It's easy to overcomplicate the supposed controversy over President Obama comparing ISIS to the Crusades at a national prayer breakfast this week.

And lest 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. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Was Obama's comment downplaying the threat of violent Islamism? Drawing misguided parallels that reveal his worst biases? Unjustly (or justly) condemning religion itself? Hinting at the contours of a sophisticated counter-terrorism strategy?

Obama's point was actually pretty simple. Let's not pretend that Islam itself is to blame for ISIS or that Muslims are inherently more violent, he suggested, because the problem of religious violence is not exclusive to any one religion. In other words, don't oversimplify the problem of ISIS to "Muslims are different from the rest of us."

This point is so banal it could be an after-school special. That it has provoked national controversy goes to show that there is still a mainstream thread of thought in America that Islam is an inherently violent religion, that the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are somehow different, and that non-Muslims are superior human beings.

Obama challenged the bigotry of those ideas, and the backlash has been both furious and mainstream. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, the scandal here is not Obama's analogy. It's that what should have been a dull platitude against bigotry has been controversial at all:

That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, "the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime," by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics.

Many critics have described Obama's assertion that Christians are equivalent to Muslims as insulting to Christians. Whether this is because they believe that Christians are inherently superior or that Muslims are inherently inferior is irrelevant. It is not so different from, say, 1960s white supremacists who called Martin Luther King an anti-white racist for asserting that white and black people are fundamentally the same.

Other critics have charged that Obama is ignoring the real threat: that America is at war not just with extremists who happen to be Muslim, but rather with Islam itself. This comment, given to the New York Times, is simply breathtaking in its open assertion that America should declare war on the 1.6 billion Muslims who are overwhelmingly civilians and are largely women and children:

Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history at Emory University, said the president's remarks seemed to be an attempt to avoid alienating Muslims by blaming their religion for groups like ISIS.

She said the remarks at the prayer breakfast will rightly bolster critics who insist that Mr. Obama should simply say that the United States is at war with Islam.

"He has bent over backwards to try to separate this from Islam," Ms. Lipstadt said. "Sometimes people try to keep an open mind. And when you have too open a mind, your brains can fall out."

Amazingly, some have tried to dismiss Obama's comparison altogether by arguing that, even during the Crusades, in fact Christians were the victims and Islam the aggressor.

To be crystal clear: this is not a fight over the fine-grain imperfections of Obama's historical analogy or over the implications for US foreign policy. It is a fight over whether it's okay to hate Muslims, to apply sweeping and negative stereotypes to the one-fifth of humanity that follows a particular religion. A number of Americans, it seems, are clinging desperately to their anti-Muslim bigotry and are furious at Obama for trying to take that away from them.

WATCH: 'Obama on his foreign policy goals' (Vox Conversations with the President of the United States)

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