At Ramadan dinner, Obama defends plans for mosque near Ground Zero

President forcefully joins debate, saying opposing project near Ground Zero is at odds with American values. Some Republicans have urged a halt.
By Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010

President Obama on Friday forcefully joined the national debate over construction of an Islamic complex near New York's Ground Zero, telling guests at a White House dinner marking the holy month of Ramadan that opposing the project is at odds with American values.

"Let me be clear: 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 at a White House iftar, the traditional breaking of the daily Ramadan fast.

"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 continued. "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."

Obama expressed sympathy for the families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists purporting to act in the name of Islam. But he told the gathering that included Muslim and other religious leaders that blocking the mosque, as some leading Republicans have angrily demanded, would undermine the country's claim to respect the free practice of religious expression.

The president's statement puts him once again at the center of a cultural clash just as his party enters the final stretch of a difficult congressional campaign. Polls suggest that most Americans disagree with his position; a recent CNN poll found 68 percent opposed to building a mosque near the Sept. 11 site.

Obama, who has made repairing strained U.S. relations with the Islamic world a centerpiece of his presidency, had remained silent for months about the nonprofit Cordoba Institute's proposal to build the Muslim cultural complex -- which would include a prayer room, the mosque component of the project, and "a Sept. 11 memorial and contemplation space" -- in Lower Manhattan.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group, expressed satisfaction that Obama had finally decided to address the controversy.

"There was some disappointment when his press secretaries relegated it to being a local issue. But we're pleased," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. "It was something that needed to be done by the president. The level of anti-Muslim hysteria has gotten out of control over this manufactured controversy."

But Dan Senor, a prominent New York Republican who has been a vocal opponent of the project, said Obama's remarks represented a "missed opportunity."

"He sets up a straw man, as if the debate were solely about religious freedom," said Senor, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "One can respect religious freedom and private property, both of which are protected by the Constitution, and still oppose the plans of the Cordoba Initiative on the grounds they will move New York backward, not forward."

Senor, who worked for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, said Obama "had to weigh in, given the emotions this has stirred."

"But he could have embraced a defense of freedom of religion, and still called on the project's leaders to consider whether building it is the right thing to do," he said.

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