Thanks to all who engaged with me via Twitter regarding President Obama's speech at the White House iftar last night. Many have welcomed this as the president at long last doing the "right thing." I am less than persuaded, and I do believe we are already seeing the president on the defensive and on the retreat. This should worry us.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported:
Aides to Mr. Obama say privately that he has always felt strongly about the proposed community center and mosque, but the White House did not want to weigh in until local authorities made a decision on the proposal, planned for two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Today the New York Times reports:
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.
So what is it exactly that President Obama felt "strongly" about? I am confused. Did he feel "strongly" that the mosque and community center should be built, or did he feel "strongly" that they should not be built? Or does he just feel "strongly" that the project planners have the right to build the center on property they lawfully own in accordance with the First Amendment?
The first excerpt from the NY Times clearly suggests that Obama strongly supported the actual "proposed community center and mosque" in lower Manhattan but did not want to influence a local planning decision. Fair enough. The second excerpt however, says he's only supporting the First Amendment. Well if that is all he is saying, he did not need to remain silent. Surely local authorities never have the right to overturn the First Amendment regardless of local ordinances and regulations. So simply supporting the First Amendment -- something he swore an oath to do -- could never be construed as interference in a local zoning decision.
If that is all Mr. Obama was saying, he could have stepped in weeks ago. What I think is really going on is that at first Mr. Obama did want to say that he supported the Cordoba House project in lower Manhattan, but is retreating -- as I expected he would. Or perhaps he wants some people to think he is supporting the initiative, while being able to tell others that he isn't.
If Obama is just upholding the First Amendment, that is certainly commendable, but let us not pretend he is adding very much to the debate or taking a particularly courageous stand. Has it really come to this that we stand in awe when the President of the United States says he supports the most basic tenets of the Bill of Rights? (I guess so since so many others are flouted). But in fact very few people have challenged the right of the Cordoba Initiative to build its community center on the property it owns in lower Manhattan. The ADL's Abe Foxman acknowledged that right and even Sarah Palin did not challenge the right.
What the critics are engaged in is collective vilification, delegitimization and incitement against Muslims in the United States and they are doing it deliberately and for political purposes. This is what needs to be recognized and confronted and sadly I do not see the president or any other senior politicians in the United States doing that. As midterm elections approach this November, I predict the level of anti-Muslim incitement is going to increase even beyond what we already see. Who is going to stand up to it?
Given that it has apparently taken Obama less than 24 hours to retreat from his relatively mild and obvious statements last night, forgive me if I am underwhelmed by what came out of the president's mouth after weeks as a bystander to very ugly, escalating and spreading racism. It's even worse than that -- just a few days ago, the White House actually said that the anti-Muslim incitement in this country is within the bounds of reasonable discourse and was not "dangerous." I beg to differ. It is dangerous and if people do not stand up to it I fear that there will be more violence targeting Muslims, such as the bombing of a mosque in Florida a few months ago.
Muslims may have the legal freedom to exercise their religion in the US -- and they do despite increasing efforts to use laws and regulations to prevent the building of mosques -- but what is that freedom worth if they live in a climate of increasing fear, vilification and hatred?
UPDATE: Obama's retreat in his own words via CNN