President Obama needs to show strong leadership on the mosque debate

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA over the weekend walked head-on into the debate over a Muslim community center planned for a site two blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Unfortunately, rather than provide clarity and leadership, he muddled his stance and appeared to backtrack in the face of criticism.

At a Friday night iftar dinner at the White House, Mr. Obama offered a spirited affirmation of freedom of religion. "As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Mr. Obama said. "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 unshakeable." Clear, unambiguous and principled.

By Saturday, confronted by withering and hysterical criticism from the right and assorted fear-mongers, Mr. Obama felt compelled to clarify his remarks. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there," he said. If that was his position all along -- and not a partial retreat impelled by criticism -- why didn't he say so Friday? More important, having chosen to address the controversy, why wouldn't Mr. Obama comment on the wisdom of putting a mosque or Muslim community center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks?

The president was right initially to separate Islam from the murderous fanatics who claim to kill in its name. "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," he said. Nevertheless, there's been a disturbing willingness in this country to smear the religion, as when former House speaker Newt Gingrich said on Monday, "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington." Such rhetoric inflames rather than enlightens, leads to more mistrust rather than greater understanding. Peaceful Muslim leaders do not represent al-Qaeda, and they should not be equated with Nazis.

The White House insists there is no inconsistency between Mr. Obama's remarks Friday night and what he has said since. With enough parsing, that may be true. But given the tone and tenor of the discussion, Mr. Obama's clear voice and unwavering leadership are needed on this issue. If, as he eloquently explained, al-Qaeda's cause "is a gross distortion of Islam," why should anyone question the appropriateness of Muslims building a center two blocks from Ground Zero? And if it is appropriate as well as constitutional, why would the president not say so?

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