After resisting making any comment on the proposal to build a mosque and Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero, President Obama came out enthusiastically in support of the plan in remarks at a White House iftar dinner, to celebrate the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The President framed the issue as one of religious freedom, echoing the words of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New York’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo, and a raft of city and state Democratic leaders.
Obama linked the proposal at Ground Zero to other more minor controversies surrounding mosques in other parts of the country, and acknowledged in passing the “sensitivities” of the proposed development in Lower Manhattan, saying that the 9/11 attacks were a, “deeply traumatic event for our country.”
But the President saved his most heartfelt rhetoric for his support of the Ground Zero mosque, saying that the issue was rooted in the very foundations of the country.
|Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel|
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
The President’s statement instantly turns the mosque controversy into a national issue, with polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose the idea. The most recent survey on the question, a CNN/Opinion Dynamic poll conducted on August 11, shows an overwhelming 68% of registered voters against the mosque. Local polls in New York also show clear majorities of city and state residents oppose the plan.
New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio has been pressuring Atty. Gen. Cuomo over the mosque issue for more than a month, and in the process has breathed new life into his campaign. Lazio released a statement in reaction to Obama’s remarks, linking Cuomo closely to the President and to an earlier controversy over the administration’s plan to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in Lower Manhattan.
“President Obama and Atty. Gen. Cuomo still are not listening to New Yorkers. With over 100 mosques in New York City, this is not an issue of religion, but one of safety and security through transparency,” Lazio said. “If Andrew Cuomo had just done his job and looked into the books of the backers of the Cordoba Initiative [the mosque’s developers], the public would have found out sooner that the developers do not even own some of the land they claim to own.”
“What we do know is that the imam leading this effort is not a peacemaker or a bridge builder having said in the week after the attacks that, ‘United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.’ President Obama along with Andrew Cuomo’s silence nearly brought the civilian trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to Lower Manhattan. President Obama and Andrew Cuomo were wrong then, they are wrong now, and we made a promise to ourselves following 9/11 that we would ‘Never Forget.’”
Debra Bulingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America and the sister of hijacked American Airlines flight 77 pilot Charles Burlingame, also released a statement expressing her outrage at Obama’s support for the mosque. In poignant language, Burlingame rejected the President’s framing of the issue as one of religious freedom, and said that Obama’s remarks on the mosque amounted to a betrayal of the country, not a defense of its most basic values.
“Barack Obama has abandoned America at the place where America’s heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see,” Burlingame said. “Since that dark day, Americans have been asked to bear the burden of defending those values, again and again and again. Now this President declares that the victims of 9/11 and their families must bear another burden. We must stand silent at the last place in America where 9/11 is still remembered with reverence or risk being called religious bigots.”
“Muslims have worshipped in New York without incident both before and after the attacks of 9/11. This controversy is not about religious freedom. 9/11 was more than a ‘deeply traumatic event,’ it was an act of war,” said Burlingame. “Building a 15-story mosque at Ground Zero is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah. Those who continue to target and kill American civilians and U.S. troops will see it as a symbol of their historic progress at the site of their most bloody victory.”
The President’s support for the mosque virtually guarantees that Democratic candidates nationwide will have to face the question of whether they too support the plan, or at least whether they support President Obama’s remarks. With support for the mosque, the President, and Democrats in Congress falling in the polls, those could be some rather uncomfortable questions for national Democrats to address.