‘Let me be clear,” Pres. Barack Obama said at Friday night’s iftar dinner at the White House before making what nearly everyone took to be a deeply felt endorsement of the Ground Zero mosque. “Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site,” was the New York Times headline.
“As a citizen, and as president,” Obama said, “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. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
With the backlash already in full swing, President Obama “clarified” his remarks on Saturday, saying, “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.”
If this was his meaning all along, he could have stipulated on Friday that he wasn’t taking a position on “a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan” and saved the headline writers at the New York Times and every other newspaper in the country from being misled.
Obama’s embarrassing backtracking highlights a more important lesson about the mosque controversy: It doesn’t have anything to do with the free exercise of religion. As Obama spectacularly demonstrated over the last couple of days, you can be a stalwart friend of religious freedom and still not necessarily think the mosque project is a good idea. Indeed, no reasonable opponent of the project contests the right of Muslims to worship as they please in this country — the First Amendment religious rights of Muslims never have been in question, at all. The critics insist only that this particular location for a project led by these particular people — including an imam who cannot bring himself to condemn Hamas — is unseemly and ill-considered. That position in no way implies a disregard for the First Amendment.
No one can seriously doubt that the organizers of the mosque project would have a legal right — assuming the zoning and permitting were in order — to use their property to open a 9/11 museum from the perspective that the attacks were provoked by America’s depredations against Islam. As the Constitution clearly says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” But surely even the Michael Bloombergs of the world would summon their moral disapproval of such a project, secure in the knowledge they hadn’t violated the First Amendment by speaking out against it.
Once the obfuscations about the free exercise of religion are cleared away, the question at Ground Zero becomes whether the project is, in Obama’s word, wise. Most Americans and most New Yorkers think not, for obvious reasons. It is a site that would have been in the shadow of the World Trade Center before it was knocked down by terrorists acting in the name of Islam. Anyone truly interested in fostering understanding between Islam and America would keep a respectful distance. We’re constantly told by our self-appointed betters that America needs to demonstrate its tolerance to the world by happily swallowing the project. But America’s tolerance is a matter of record. What a blessed relief it would be if these lectures were directed, at least occasionally, toward well-meaning Muslims, who should oppose what their co-religionists are doing at Ground Zero.
As for President Obama, what if he had said that he is in such sympathy with the feelings of his fellow Americans about Ground Zero that he respectfully urges the leaders of the mosque project to move it elsewhere, even though they, of course, have the legal right to build it in the current location? And what if he told our friends the Saudis that he will not appreciate it if they fund the mosque at Ground Zero? Alas, that’d take a different president, one who doesn’t combine lawyerly hair-splitting with the irresistible impulse to talk down to the American public.