Just recently, a New York building commission cleared the way for an Islamic community center to be built two blocks north of where the World Trade Center once stood. Staying silent until the commission came out with its decision, Obama made his first comments on the matter Friday night at a Ramadan celebration hosted by the White House.
Standing up for the right to put a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, President Obama on Saturday warned that the country risks losing its distinct identity if it ignores basic American values such as religious freedom. He said that "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 about."
In his remarks Friday, Obama referred to the trauma of the 9-11 attacks as unimaginable. "So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders," he said. "Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground." But he added that America's "commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."
Americans have the right to build houses of worship wherever we choose, as long as we lawfully purchase the land and build to code. Indeed, in 1998 the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was passed to ensure this right is protected. Do we really want to give the government the right to pick and choose which religions get to build where? Do we want Evangelicals banned from building new churches in neighborhoods where they are an unpopular minority? Do they want the majority to be able to decide where Mormon churches can be built, or Synagogues, or Adventist Churches, or Catholic? We are all minorities somewhere in this country. Do we want the majority to be able to squelch our plans to build a house of worship? Of course not.
But the fact that they have a constitutional right to build that mosque near Ground Zero is not the point.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council put out statement applauding Obama and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who also has defended the proposed mosque: "The president and Mayor Bloomberg have set the standard for other political leaders to preserve America's open society," said council President Salam Al-Marayati. "The president landed a major blow against Al Qaeda's false narrative that America is at war with Islam."
Showing that America is not at war with all Islam is not the point either.
The point is: it is extremely insensitive for Muslims to build a mosque so close to Ground Zero. Period. End of discussion. They had to know they would be stepping on America’s heart. This is an immoral decision on the part of that particular Islamic group and their Imam.
The building of the mosque could hurt Obama politically. I have to agree with House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio who took issue with Obama's remarks. "The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn't necessarily make it the right thing to do," Boehner said in a statement. "That is the essence of tolerance, peace and understanding. This is not an issue of law, whether religious freedom or local zoning. This is a basic issue of respect for a tragic moment in our history."
Obama has indicated that he is aware that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero may be technically legal, but morally insensitive, and stated such: "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he said. He emphasized that he was standing up for a basic principle and that he was not endorsing the idea of putting a mosque at that specific location. In other words, there is really nothing that anyone can legally do to stop it.
But the distinction seems an academic one. At no point has Obama actually come out and said that it is a bad idea to put a mosque at that site even if the owners have the right to do so. In other words, building that mosque is a very unwise thing to do; it is an in-your-eye, in-your-face action by so-called Islamic moderates.
This action is a very unwise thing to do, and President Obama should publicly tell them so.