WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama is under siege after speaking out in favor of building a mosque near Ground Zero, a stance that has elevated the contentious issue to the presidential level ahead of a difficult election season for Democrats.
Obama came out in favor of the proposal for the first time Friday night during a White House iftar dinner in the holy month of Ramadan.
“… Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” Obama said.
“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
In a highly charged election-year debate, Obama surely knew that his words would not only make headlines in the US, but also be heard by Muslims worldwide and find favor with them.
Thus his words were an effort to reach out to the global Muslim community. The guests at Friday’s dinner included ambassadors and officials from numerous nations including Saudi Arabia.
Obama’s position runs counter to the opinions of the majority of Americans, according to polls. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque plan while just 29 percent approved. An AOL poll Saturday found that of those voting online, 88 percent said they were “completely” against it.
This may explain why a number of Democratic politicians — all up for re-election in November — have shied away from the controversy.
Some 9/11 victims’ advocates and Republicans have strongly condemned Obama’s support for the mosque, which would be part of a $100 million Islamic community center two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. They also say the plan is “insensitive” to victims’ relatives.
But while the president called the World Trade Center site “hallowed grounds,” he also said the proper way to honor it was to apply American values.
“”Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.”
Obama’s remarks drew prompt responses from those who oppose it.
“President Obama is wrong,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told reporters. “It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero. While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque, they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much.”
Right-wing politicians such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have opposed the mosque. Palin said this month: “Doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland?”
Gingrich in July called the mosque proposal a “test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites.”
But James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, praised the president for finally weighing in with his opinion. “The opposition to the Muslim Community Center … in Manhattan is based on bigotry and is being fueled by opportunists on the right.
“Look at the line-up arrayed against the center — it’s the same cast of characters who have been opposed to all things Arab and Muslim for years now,” Zogby told Arab News. “They’ve made an industry of their intolerance … Their defaming and deliberate mischaracterization of the work of (the imam) Faisal Abul Raouf is disgraceful.”
He said he hoped that the president’s words would “toughen up” those who have been silent on the issue.
Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said Obama’s opinion was important for the nation. “It’s extremely important that President Obama has joined … so many other national leaders in defending the core American traditions of religious freedom and tolerance.
“Since there are millions of Muslim Americans, their rights as equal citizens have to be defended by all real American leaders. It unfortunately became necessary for the president to make this point clearly and firmly to the entire country,” said Ibish.
“The foes of the Islamic center have been trying to drag Obama into this debate, and some have urged Obama to avoid wading into it. But now he has, and he isn’t hedging a bit: He’s saying that opposing the group’s right to build the Islamic center is, in essence, un-American. I look forward to the response from the project’s opponents,” noted Greg Sargent, in Saturday’s Washington Post.
“Obama’s strenuous defense of the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ is significant not just in bolstering the credibility of his message to the Muslim world, but it also engages him directly in the political fight against far right extremists here at home who wish to erode the American values at stake in the fight over the mosque,” wrote Faiz Shakir, in Think Progress.
But Jennifer Rubin, calling his decision an abomination, wrote in Commentary: “… his sympathies for the Muslim World take precedence over those, such as they are, for his fellow citizens.”
The imam of the proposed Cordoba House Islamic Center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has promoted the center as a place to foster religious tolerance, Islamic heritage and healing.
Rauf has been vilified by some GOP opponents of the mosque, but he was one of the loudest Muslim voices condemning the Sept. 11 attacks and was a frequent adviser to President George W. Bush.