Obama defends "ground zero mosque"

The president takes a politically unpopular position and deserves praise for doing so

Published August 14, 2010 1:14AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II [Obama's clarification] - Update III)

This is one of the most impressive and commendable things Obama has done since being inaugurated:

President Obama delivered a strong defense on Friday night of a proposed Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero in Manhattan, using a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan to proclaim that "as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country" . . . .

"I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," the president said in remarks prepared for the annual White House iftar, the sunset meal breaking the day’s fast.

But, he continued: "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are" . . . . 

What makes this particularly commendable is there is virtually no political gain to be had from doing it, and substantial political risk. Polls shows overwhelming opposition to the mosque nationwide (close to 70% opposed), and that's true even in New York, where an extraordinary "50% of Democrats, 74% of Republicans, and 52% of 'non-enrolled' voters, don't want to see the mosque built."  The White House originally indicated it would refrain from involving itself in the dispute, and there was little pressure or controversy over that decision.  There was little anger over the President's silence even among liberal critics.  And given the standard attacks directed at Obama -- everything from being "soft on Terror" to being a hidden Muslim -- choosing this issue on which to take a very politically unpopular and controversial stand is commendable in the extreme.

The campaign against this mosque is one of the ugliest and most odious controversies in some time.  It's based purely on appeals to base fear and bigotry.  There are no reasonable arguments against it, and the precedent that would be set if its construction were prevented -- equating Islam with Terrorism, implying 9/11 guilt for Muslims generally, imposing serious restrictions on core religious liberty -- are quite serious.  It was Michael Bloomberg who first stood up and eloquently condemned this anti-mosque campaign for what it is, but Obama's choice to lend his voice to a vital and noble cause is a rare demonstration of principled, politically risky leadership.  It's not merely a symbolic gesture, but also an important substantive stand against something quite ugly and wrong.  This is an act that deserves pure praise.


UPDATE: To anyone wanting to quibble with what was done here -- the timing, the wording, etc. -- I'll just pose this question:  when is the last time a President voluntarily entered an inflammatory public controversy by taking a position opposed by 70% of the public?


UPDATE II:  In the face of the controversy created by last night's remarks, Obama came out today and emphasized the very limited nature of the position he took:

President Obama said on Saturday that in defending the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque near Ground Zero he "was not commenting" on "the wisdom" of that particular project, but rather trying to uphold the broader principle that government should "treat everybody equally" regardless of religion. . . .

In clarifying his remarks, Mr. Obama was apparently seeking to address criticism that he is using his presidential platform to promote a particular project that has aroused the ire of many New Yorkers. And on Saturday at least three prominent Republicans spoke out against Mr. Obama’s stance.

White House officials said earlier in the day that Mr. Obama was not trying to promote the project, but rather sought more broadly to make a statement about freedom of religion and American values. "In this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion," Mr. Obama said at the Coast Guard station. "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."

It's technically true, as Darren Hutchinson points out, that Obama isn't changing what he said, as his speech last night was devoted to a defense of "the right" of the mosque to be built, and it said nothing about whether it should be built near Ground Zero.  But clearly, the tone and the emphasis of his speech -- and the absence of the fine distinctions he's drawing today -- made it obvious that it would be interpreted as siding with the mosque proponents and against those opposing the mosque, and that's exactly how it was interpreted by virtually everyone.

But by insisting now that he was merely commenting on the technical "rights" of the project developers -- as a way of responding to Republican criticism that he was advocating for the project itself -- he has diminished his remarks from a courageous and inspiring act into a non sequitur, somewhat of an irrelevancy.  After all, the "right" of the mosque isn't really in question and didn't need a defense.  As Ben Smith correctly explains

Obama's new remarks, literally speaking, re-open the question of which side he's on. Most of the mosque's foes recognize the legal right to build, and have asked the builders to reconsider.

But the clarification is, in political terms, puzzling. The signal Obama sent with his rhetoric last night wasn't that he had chosen to make a trivial, legal point about the First Amendment. He chose to make headlines in support of the mosque project, and he won't be able to walk them back now with this sprinkling of doubt. All he'll do is frustrate some of the people who so eagerly welcomed his words yesterday as a return to form.

Indeed, with today's clarification, Obama is not really on any side of this controversy.  What made Bloomberg's speech so inspiring was how unapologetic and emphatic it was in defense of the mosque itself -- not just some sort of "right" that very few people were even questioning.   Even worse, the primary focus of my praise here -- that Obama was taking a politically unpopular position -- isn't even true in light of this clarification.  As Nate Silver documents, the same polls which show that large majorities oppose the mosque also show that majorities affirm the "right" for it to be built.  That means Obama was merely echoing what polls show is the majority view, while explicitly distancing himself today from any view that is unpopular.  So even that praise of him now seems inapplicable. 

On the whole, it's still preferable for Obama to say what he said rather than say nothing.  The notion that Muslims enjoy the same religious freedom as everyone else and are not to blame for Terrorism are always nice to hear.  But by parsing his remarks to be as inoffensive as possible, and retreating from what was the totally predictable way his speech would be understood, he has reduced his own commendable act into something which is, at best, rather pedestrian and even slightly irritating.  See also:  this excellent commentary on the "clarification" from the Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah, quoted in the original NYT article praising Obama, on the strangeness of how these events developed.


UPDATE III:  Digby has a worthwhile analysis of the "clarification" issued today by Obama.  There's nothing worth criticizing Obama for here:  what he did say was perfectly fine and true.  The remarks, as explicitly limited today, just don't merit the effusive praise I heaped on it, particularly because my central cause for praise -- that he was embracing an opinion opposed by a large majority of Americans -- isn't true.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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