Pres. Barack Obama’s ringing statement in favor of the Ground Zero mosque had a gaping escape clause: He didn’t necessarily support the mosque.
Not that he bothered to spell that out for his entranced listeners at an iftar dinner at the White House last Friday night, or to those of his supporters who rushed to hail the “finest moment” of his presidency. “Moment” turned out to be the right word. Less than 24 hours later he was telling reporters he hadn’t taken a position on the “wisdom” of the mosque project, only on the organizers’ “right to build a place of worship and community center on private property in lower Manhattan.”
Obama managed to stake a brave stand on a principle no one seriously contests — the legal right to build the mosque — while voting “present” on the question that matters: whether they should or not. This is high-toned dodginess, insipidity masquerading as incisiveness.
Obama’s weekend meanderings had the clarifying effect of separating the question of legality from considerations of prudence and advisability. If the president, whose tolerance for minorities is beyond reproach, can pointedly decline to endorse the wisdom of the project, why are all the critics beyond the pale? Especially now that the second-most-powerful Democrat in the country, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has joined them?
Supporters of the mosque make it sound as though opposition to the project is unusual and un-American. Obviously none of them has ever tried to build a church, or any other house of worship. So prevalent and fierce is the resistance to them — usually on grounds of noise and traffic, but with an undercurrent of hostility to faith in certain secular communities — that Congress passed a law in 2000 pushing back against the abuse of local zoning rules to squash these projects.
Before reversing itself after a lawsuit, the town of Bedford in Westchester County, N.Y., used concerns over noise to deny a permit for a small Buddhist temple — where people would go to meditate silently. Just imagine the controversy if the Pine Hill Zendo had been adjacent to the site of an atrocity carried out in the name of “the awakened one.”
Even in his allegedly ringing iftar speech, Obama said that Ground Zero is “hallowed ground,” that we must “respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan,” and that “we must never forget those we lost so tragically on 9/11.”
Those words easily could have been spoken by an opponent of the mosque. “Hallowed” ground deserves special treatment; what is unobjectionable elsewhere can become unseemly and ill-considered on such resonant ground. Which is why the mosque controversy is not about abstract rights but about particularities — whether a mosque built at this particular location by these particular people is appropriate.
If Obama were to go all-out in favor of the mosque, and eschew all saccharine generalities, he’d say, “I’m fine with a mosque built near Ground Zero established by an imam who partly blamed the United States for the Sept. 11 attacks, who won’t condemn Hamas, and who has connections with groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. I won’t say a discouraging word about any of this, and if our friends the Saudis want to chip in $100 million to finance it, that’s okay, too.”
That’d be bracing and starkly honest, although half his party would follow Harry Reid to the exit ramp. Instead, we get the subtle innuendo that all critics of the mosque are intolerant, an empty solicitousness about Ground Zero, and a deliberate obliviousness about the actual organizers of the project — all wrapped in a rhetoric that is equal parts self-righteous and squirrely. In other words, classic Obama.
The president said at the iftar, correctly, that we are a nation where different faiths “coexist peacefully and with mutual respect.” Is it too much to ask that, in a gesture of respect and cordial coexistence, the Ground Zero mosque go find less hallowed ground?
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.