President Obama Backs Islamic Center Near Ground Zero

President Barack Obama hosts an iftar dinner 8/13/10
President Barack Obama hosts an iftar dinner 8/13/10

President Barack Obama on Friday defended plans to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque just blocks from Wall Street and the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, wading into an issue that has inflamed passions in New York City and across the country.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said in remarks at a White House dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

"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," he said. "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

Outcry and Opposition

The issue of whether to build the Islamic center has provoked an outcry from both sides of the political spectrum. Republicans including Sarah Palin and John McCain have blasted the idea, saying it's insensitive to the families of those who died or were injured on 9/11. Opponents also say Muslims around the world would use the mosque as a symbol of victory, like planting a flag at the site of a major battle. They question whether funding for the center would come from foreign governments or entities with ties to terrorism.

"President Obama is wrong," said Rep. Peter King, (R-NY), in comments cited by The Associated Press. "It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero. While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much."

Supporters of the center, including New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and now President Obama, say the issue is one of basic religious freedom. The government has no business telling religious groups where to build houses of worship, they argue. The land is private property, and the owner has the right to establish a religious community center on his land, if he chooses. Proponents also argue that the center would send a powerful message to Muslims around the world that in the U.S., citizens have religious freedom.

"I applaud President Obama's clarion defense of the freedom of religion," Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement.

No U.S. War Against a Religion

By blocking the mosque, proponents argue, radical Islamist extremists worldwide could point to the U.S. and say, "See, I told you America is the Great Satan. This is another example of their war against Muslims."

Of course, despite the propaganda of radical Islamist clerics in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, there is no U.S. war against Muslims as a group or the religion of Islam -- but rather twisted Islamist terrorists who attacked the U.S. and continue to plot attacks against us. President Bush said it, President Obama says it, and it's true.

That's why arguments that we would never allow a Japanese temple to built at Pearl Harbor are spurious. Japan attacked the U.S. But the Muslim religion didn't attack the U.S. on 9/11. It was a group of psychopathic terrorists, who didn't just hijack planes to slaughter thousands in lower Manhattan, they hijacked their own religion.

Most New Yorkers I know (and I was born, raised and live in Manhattan) have very strong feelings about 9/11. Ten years later, the emotions are still raw and the anger is only exacerbated by the lack of progress rebuilding the site the fallen towers. For many, it is infuriating to contemplate a new house of worship devoted to the religion that was so monstrously perverted that day -- while our sacred Ground Zero remains a construction area, a void every New Yorker observes with pain when looking at the skyline.

Debate Will Intensify

But 9/11 wasn't just an attack on New York, it was an attack on the whole U.S., which helps explain why so many folks around the country are so sensitive about the site and its proximity to Ground Zero. A new Fox News poll found that while 61% of voters think the building's owners have the right to build a center in lower Manhattan, 64% think it would be wrong to put a mosque near Ground Zero. Over one-third of those polled say the group doesn't have the right to build an Islamic center at that location.

Now that Obama has weighed in, the debate is sure to intensify.