Obama stands up for Ground Zero mosqueBy: Abby Phillip
August 13, 2010
President Barack Obama on Friday endorsed a controversial plan to build a mosque and Islamic center just blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan, despite the strong objections of conservatives, civic groups and those who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks.
“Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground,” according to prepared remarks Obama was to deliver at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. “But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that 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.”
Having steered clear of the controversy for weeks, Obama took on opposition to the mosque directly — a move that many other Democratic lawmakers had been hesitant to do in the face of highly emotional appeals against its construction. But polls indicate the issue could be a high-voltage third rail for politicians who support the project: a recent CNN poll found that 68 percent of those surveyed did not approve of building a mosque so close to where the World Trade Center towers fell, killing more than 2,000 people.
In recent weeks, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had deflected questions on the issue, insisting it is “a matter for New York City and the local community to decide.” But Obama had been criticized for being slow to weigh in on the controversy, especially in light of his past statements in support of religious freedom and tolerance for Muslims in the United States.
In his speech Friday, Obama called for sensitivity with respect to developing in lower Manhattan, but cautioned against drawing comparisons between mainstream Islam and the ruthlessly violent ideology of al Queda, which he said is a “gross distortion” of the faith. “Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect to those who are different from us – a way of life that stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today,” he said.
Earlier this week, in a statement recognizing the onset of the Muslim holy month, Obama said that the rituals of Ramadan “remind us of the principles that we hold in common, and Islam’s role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings.”
The event is this White House’s second recognition of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, with a traditional iftar dinner—a communal event that traditionally marks the breaking of the fast at sundown.
The project, spearheaded by the Cordoba Institute, an organization that works to improve the relationship between Muslims and the West, proposes that a 152-year old building be demolished two blocks away from Ground Zero to make way for the new Muslim community center and mosque.
Opponents have argued that, if constructed, the mosque would be a painful insult to survivors, rescue workers and families of those who died on 9/11. Proponents counter that the presence of a mosque so close to the center of the attacks would be a powerful signal of American religious tolerance – a counterweight to the terrorist attack. At the same time, they argue, blocking its construction violates the Constitutional right to freedom of religion.
A number of prominent conservatives, including GOP presidential hopefuls Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, and moderate Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), decried plans for the mosque.
“There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” Gingrich wrote on his website. “The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.”
Prominent conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer even compared the proposed mosque to construction of German heritage center at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
But some Democratic law makers from New York have been reluctant to address the issue.
A spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer has said only that the New York senator is “not opposed” to the controversial proposal.
Rep. Anthony Weiner – who is said to have mayoral ambitions and who gained notoriety last month for railing against Republican opposition to a bill supporting medical funds for 9/11 first responders – has declined to talk specifically about the mosque.
Most on the left have preferred to deal with a more concrete issue: whether the government can lawfully stop the project.
“I feel strongly that the constitutional protection of freedom of religion from the overreach of government means that elected officials should endeavor to stay out of the business of deciding where houses of worship may or may not be,” Weiner said in a letter to Bloomberg that praise the mayor’s defense of religious freedom.
But Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said Obama is “wrong” to endorse an “insensitive and uncaring” project.
“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,” he said in a statement Friday. “The right and moral thing for President Obama to have done was to urge Muslim leaders to respect the families of those who died and move their mosque away from Ground Zero. Unfortunately the President caved into political correctness."
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader for the mosque and head of the Cordoba Institute, has been sent by the Bush and Obama administrations to parts of the Muslim world to speak about religious tolerance in the United States.
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to allow the project to move forward. But that vote is likely to only spark further litigation on the issue.
A group affiliated with conservative religious leader Pat Robertson, American Center for Law and Justice, said that it would challenge the vote by the Landmarks Commission in court.