At Friday's iftar dinner at the White House, President Obama declared, “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. 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.” On Saturday he offered this clarification: “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.”
A few thoughts on this:
1. This has never been about the right to worship or religious freedom; it is about the wisdom of placing a proposed 15-story mosque and Islamic Center near Ground Zero. By his comments the president has shown, inadvertently, that the two issues are entirely separable. After all, if building the mosque were a matter of our “unshakable” commitment to religious freedom, and if that is what the controversy over the mosque were really all about, then Obama would have declared, in emphatic terms, what his position is. The fact that he won't indicates that even Obama knows this is not an issue of high Constitutional principle; it's a matter of a prudential judgment about context and location.
2. Assume the leader of the mosque had celebrated the American deaths on 9/11 and said that the agony of the slain brought him utter delight. Would that matter to Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama, and the supporters of building the mosque? If not, they should say so and allow the voters to render their verdict on that disposition.
If so — if it is considered inappropriate to allow a Ground Zero mosque run by an imam who, while stopping short of advocating violence, did hold “radical” as opposed to “moderate” views — then aren't we getting into dangerous territory, with government officials saying yes to religious leaders who are sufficiently “moderate” but no to religious leaders who don't meet the Obama and Bloomberg test for theological integrity?
3. It's hard to understand what President Obama is trying to achieve by wading into these waters. If his purpose was to speak out in behalf of the importance of religious liberty in America, the point is so obvious that it doesn't need to be made. No serious person is arguing against religious liberty. If the purpose of Obama speaking out was to advance inter-faith comity and ensure that tensions don't rise in America, then he has damaged that cause.
The American people were extremely fair-minded toward Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. There was no backlash against Muslims — appropriately so — and our political leaders, including President Bush, went out of their way to praise Muslim Americans and to distinguish between Islam and al-Qaeda's interpretation of Islam. But precisely because those who plotted and executed the attacks on 9/11 did so in the name of Islam — and because Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has said that the U.S. was “an accessory to the crime that happened” — there is resistance to allowing this particular mosque to be built in this particular place.
Many people believe that Imam Rauf is trying to co-opt a brutal attack against innocent Americans in order to make his own point. But even if you don't agree with that assessment, forcing the public to accept the mosque may well (and unfortunately) deepen resentment against Muslims — and, as we have seen, for no high-minded, first-amendment reasons. The public will feel as if this were a stick in the eye — something unnecessary and even provocative.
Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues and one of the qualities that is most important for political leaders to have. It involves, among other things, the ability to anticipate the effects of one's words and actions. What Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama have done is to undermine the very cause they say they are trying to defend. By implicitly and explicitly siding with Feisal Abdul Rauf's effort and trying to turn this matter into a false debate about religious freedom, they are sharpening the divisions in our country in a way that is both unnecessary and harmful.
Well done, gentlemen.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.