After a seemingly studied silence regarding the controversy surrounding plans to build a Muslim community center a couple of blocks from ground zero--the so-called "ground zero mosque"--President Obama defended the project this evening. "As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Obama said at a White House dinner honoring Ramadan. "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."
This is America indeed. The president was reflecting the better angels of our nation's nature this evening, though perhaps not as eloquently or forcefully as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did earlier this month.
Unfortunately, as I argued in my most recent column, Park51 (which despite popular misconception is neither a mosque, as such, nor at ground zero), has become a focal point of an ugly new nativism infecting our country and our politics. You can also see it in other mosque controversies around the country. It's not about religion. It's about demagogues giving vent to the uglier aspects of our nature. But as the president said:
...let us also remember who we're fighting against, and what we're fighting for. Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam -- it's a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders -- they're terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children. ...
And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms -- it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race, or religion, or wealth, or status.
The great threat we face isn't a religion but a fanaticism. And the response to it isn't fear mongering or irrationality. It's resolute defense of and expression of our values. As a friend of mine quipped on Facebook, "Damn, next thing you know the man sworn to uphold the Constitution will be defending the 1st Amendment. Rat bastard!"
UPDATE 8/14/10: Obama walked his comments back a bit, saying that he doesn't support the community center so much as the right to build it. Fine. The bottom line is that this is a bright line issue and whatever nuance he wishes to add, the president came down on the side of American values and the Constitution, and against the fear mongers and nativists.