Jingoistic demonstration in Zucotti Park against proposed Islamic Cultural Center a few blocks from Ground Zero. Later, someone garlanded the proposed site with dirty shoes, raw porkchops, and cartoons of the Prophet. by Johnnie Utah

President Barack Obama stepped into the middle of a swirl of prejudicial vitriol and unashamed hatred surrounding the building of an Islamic cultural center several blocks away from Ground Zero.

Appearing at Friday night’s iftar dinner at the White House, held to mark the breaking of the daily Ramadan feast, in a safe space away from Islamophobic politicians and pundits who have been disinforming Americans on the building of a "Ground Zero mosque" for weeks now, Obama declared in a speech:

…Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities — particularly New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And 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. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure…

 

Obama’s remarks were insightful and courageous and along the lines of comments from New York City’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg just over a week ago. Bloomberg, too, argued "the government has no right whatsoever to deny" the right to those who wish to build a mosque and stated, "if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution."

 

"Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question – should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion?" asked Mayor Bloomberg. "That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another."

 

And, from a place of great reason, to strike a blow to unthinking people who are running around making outlandish claims about Muslims and terror babies and how Islamic people wish to impose Sharia law on America, Bloomberg stated:

"Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists – and we should not stand for that"

 

 Having people like Mayor Bloomberg to back President Obama up, Obama would be able to hold on to his defense and continue to give this well-reasoned argument to thwart the hatred of Islamophobes across the country as reporters asked him for more remarks on what he said, right?

"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important, as difficult as some of these issues are, that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about."

 

President Obama’s position at that moment morphed into, in principle, this country should allow the Islamic center to be built, but, I do not know specifically if in this case building a mosque is a wise idea or not. The idea that "commitments to religious freedom must be unshakeable" now appeared to be shakeable if it could be proven one is making unwise decisions related to the exercising of that religious freedom.

 

How would this "backtracking" play in the conservative media echo chamber that has made the Obama Administration yield to any and every message born out of pig-headed phobia?

 

Guests and show hosts promoted this idea on Sunday that, if the cultural center would not be promoting interfaith dialogue (a standard that most Christian or Jewish institutions never have to adhere to), then there’s no way the construction of a mosque should be supported.

 

 Republican Congressman Peter King said on "State of the Union with Candy Crowley" on August 15th, "I think the president, by the way, is trying to have it both ways, because I don’t know of anyone who was saying that Muslims do not have the right to practice their religion, but with rights go responsibilities, and that’s the part of it the president did not comment on.

 

Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island said "Fox News Sunday" with Bret Baier, "the president, I think, is right to point out that our traditions do embrace tolerance for religions, all religions" but went on to say the "issue is whether the operation — this facility is really one that is designed to provide interfaith communication, dialogue, to not in some way try to repeal the reality of 9/11, which was an attack by fanatical Muslims against the United States, but to try to find those common ground between all the religious communities."

 

On the same show, Senator John Cornyn, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee declared this issue an "election issue" and said what was said is indicative of "the lack of connection between the administration and Washington and folks inside the Beltway and mainstream America. And I think this is what aggravates people so much."

 

ABC’s This Week host Christiane Amanpour and NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts accused Obama of "walking back" from statements he made in his speech. And, Liz Cheney was quoted by Mike Allen of Politico, "I guess President Obama was for the mosque before he was against it."

 

Tunku Varadarajan wrote on The Daily Beast, "At first sight, this may seem but a minor alteration in tone, or nuance. But in political terms, it is tectonic, reducing Obama in stature from a brave man, standing tall against the forces of intolerance, to a picayune, insecure trimmer who wishes to be all things to all people, a man who is so unsure of his own principles that he will seek to reinterpret words, just a day after he uttered them."

 

Varadarajan and the aforementioned congressmen are right to talk about how this was never a question of the mosque’s right to be built–at least rhetorically speaking. Amanpour’s comments on Obama "walking back" his comments directly cited a poll of Americans indicating more than sixty percent recognize the right to build the center but, in another poll, more than sixty percent think it’s wrong to build the mosque. So, the tension does not seem to be coming from people who dispute whether Muslims have a right to religious freedom or not–unless you consider this gubernatorial candidate.

 

Unless you consider the people protesting the building of one on Staten Island. Unless you consider the people protesting the building of one in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Unless you consider the people protesting the construction of one in Sheboygan County in Wisconsin. Unless you consider the people protesting the building of one in Temecula, California. Unless you consider the people detailed in Stephen Salisbury’s article "Extremism at Ground Zero (Again)".

 

Contrary to politicians and pundits, this is about the right to religious freedom. From coast to coast Americans do not want Muslims to have private property rights because they have Islamophobia that there is no way of knowing how the mosque will be funded, who will be praying and worshipping at the mosque and what activities/agenda the mosque might support. The only way to alleviate that fear is through leadership and speeches to the American public similar to the one Obama delivered Friday night and the one Mayor Bloomberg delievered over a week ago.

 

This was a teaching moment, an opportunity to stay firm and not back down, a chance to comment on the specific project itself and in doing so defend other projects around the country that have been targeted by Islamophobia in recent years. It would not have been difficult to comment on the "wisdom" in a politically savvy way; all President Obama had to do is watch Jon Stewart take on Ground Zero mosque critics last week in a segment that properly ridiculed opposition to the building of the mosque.

 

But, it appears, as with countless issues, Obama has little moral fortitude to stand up for what’s right. He offers empty platitudes until reverberations or echoes drown out his platitudes and then he stops commenting. He then proceeds to engage in obvious wordsmithing to obfuscate his stance and refuses to give further comments on the problem or issue.

 

President Obama should have just remained silent on the mosque; if he wasn’t going to stand up for the mosque project itself, he should have known he would only be empowering FOX News blowhards and frenzied Americans who fear "in 20 years there will be enough Muslim voters in the U.S. to elect the president by themselves" so they can carry out their planned jihad on America.

 

But, given the mostly forgotten fact that he removed two Muslim women at a campaign rally who were going to be sitting behind the podium because his campaign didn’t want women with headscarves to appear with Obama in photographs or on television, we should all not be surprised at Obama’s spinelessness.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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