PRESIDENT OBAMA had it right the first time in talking about the mosque proposed near ground zero of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Speaking last Friday at the White House celebration of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Obama said, "The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.
"But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And 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 unshakable.''
Unfortunately, Obama and his aides were clearly shaken by poll numbers against the mosque, fueled by the predictable blowback from fearmongers who see anything Muslim as evil.
The very next day, while visiting the Gulf of Mexico, he said, "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.''
There is no need for Obama to dance on semantics on this issue, especially when the Republican response is a blatant blunderbuss of ignorance. New York Representative Peter King called the "Muslim community'' insensitive and uncaring to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero and said the "Muslim community'' was "needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much.'' Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said a mosque near ground zero was "like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.''
Such Republicans forget that their own President Bush, in hosting many dinners to break the fast of Ramadan said, "All of us gathered tonight share a conviction that America must remain a welcoming and tolerant land . . . we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time.'' Bush also said, "The freedom of worship is central to the American character. It's the first protection in the Bill of Rights.''
There is no need for Obama even to give the appearance of equivocation when he is defending the very Bill of Rights. In a rational United States, this debate would have been over two weeks ago. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is Jewish and likely knows a lot more than Gingrich about the Holocaust, gave a stirring speech defending the right of people to build a mosque.
"The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right, and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the US Constitution,'' he said. ". . . Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists and we should not stand for that.''
The next time Obama has to talk about the mosque or issues similar to it, he can stand on the words of founding father James Madison. In a 1788 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison wrote of myopic fears in New England that the freedom of religion in the Constitution "opened a door for Jews, Turks and infidels.'' He warned that a bill of rights should guard against "the danger of oppression'' by majorities that render the rights of minorities "insecure.''
Bloomberg said of the victims of 9/11, "We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights.'' Likewise, on issues like the mosque, Obama should speak with no insecurity whatsoever. His own commitment to religious freedom must remain unshakable.