By Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010; A01
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.
As proposed, the Islamic center, formally known as the Cordoba House, would rise 13 stories on land two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The nonprofit bought the property last year for $4 million and plans to spend $100 million on the complex.
A New York City planning commission unanimously struck down the final barrier to the project on Aug. 3 by refusing to grant the building currently on the site protection as a historic landmark. That structure was damaged by debris in the Sept. 11 attacks.
But what began as a local zoning dispute evolved into a raucous national discussion.
A number of prominent Republicans joined some of the families of those killed on Sept. 11 in opposing the mosque, saying it would inappropriately celebrate the religion that al-Qaeda leaders say inspired the terrorist attacks.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin asked on Twitter last month of the mosque's supporters: "Doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland?" Former House speaker Newt Gingrich in July called the mosque proposal a "test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites."
The Anti-Defamation League surprised many by urging the complex to be built somewhere else, saying the "sensitivities" of the Sept. 11 victims should be paramount. ADL Chairman Abraham Foxman said construction of the complex close to Ground Zero would be "insensitive and counterproductive to reconciliation."
But Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who is the project's sponsor, has promoted the center as a place to foster religious tolerance, Islamic heritage and healing. Rauf has been vilified by some GOP opponents of the mosque, but he was one of the loudest Muslim voices condemning the Sept. 11 attacks and was a frequent guest of and adviser to former president George W. Bush.
Those in favor of the complex received support from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), who in an emotional speech after the commission vote said that denying the mosque would leave Americans "untrue to the best part of ourselves." Speaking of the firefighters and police officers killed in the World Trade Center, Bloomberg added, "We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting."
In a statement, Bloomberg applauded Obama's remarks, calling them a "clarion defense of the freedom of religion."
Previously, the Obama administration had left the issue to Bloomberg and others, repeatedly calling it a local matter that the White House should not be involved in.
On Friday, though, the president said America's message to the rest of the world must remain one of religious tolerance. He called the country's "patchwork heritage" a strength even though such diversity can lead to disagreement.
"But time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues and stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it," he said. "So it must be -- and will be -- today."
Obama made his remarks at a dinner with members of Congress, diplomats, religious leaders, community activists and administration officials. The nearly 100 guests sat at tables draped with gray, silken tablecloths and decorated with four tall, white candles arrayed around simple centerpieces. The White House celebration, which dates back to a similar one 200 years ago hosted by Thomas Jefferson, took place in the State Dining Room.
Former President George W. Bush also attempted to make clear America is not at war with Islam, only with those who invoke the religion to further violent causes. But Bush's invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, and the Iraq war after that, inflamed Muslim sentiment against the United States, as did his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many in the Arab Middle East viewed as biased toward Israel's position.
Obama took office pledging to repair that image among the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, particularly those in the strategically important Middle East. He has sought to do so with several high-profile international speeches, and by taking steps he says help bring American foreign policy in line with the nation's values.
In April 2009, during his first overseas trip as president, Obama told the Turkish parliament, "We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world -- including in my own country."
"The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans," said Obama, who spent some of his childhood in Indonesia. "Many other Americans have been enriched by Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know because I am one of them."
Two months later, he delivered his address to the Muslim world from Cairo University, calling the speech "A New Beginning." He again explicitly noted Islam's role in the United States, and the values he says protect its practice.
"Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion," Obama said then. "That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it."
"So let there be no doubt," he continued, "Islam is a part of America."