Making of a mosque mess

The controversy grows over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero as more politicians enter the fray.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 11:13 AM

On Dec. 8, 2009, the New York Times published a story about a planned development in lower Manhattan:

"The building has no sign that hints at its use as a Muslim prayer space, but these modest beginnings point to a far grander vision: an Islamic center near the city's most hallowed piece of land that would stand as one of ground zero's more unexpected and striking neighbors.

"The location was precisely a key selling point for the group of Muslims who bought the building in July. A presence so close to the World Trade Center, 'where a piece of the wreckage fell,' said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, 'sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11.'

" 'We want to push back against the extremists,' added Imam Feisal, 61."

The reaction? Nada. Later that month, in fact, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham interviewed the imam's wife on "O'Reilly Factor" and said: "I can't find many people who really have a problem with it. . . . I like what you're trying to do."

That bit of history, provided by Salon's Justin Elliott, raises the obvious question: How did the mosque morph into one of the most divisive issues in American politics today?

It seems to me a colossal waste of time, a huge expenditure of national energy over something that is ultimately symbolic, and which government doesn't have the power to stop anyway (since the planners have obtained the necessary New York City approvals). It is as if the country's agenda has been reduced to a noisy cable TV debate.

I understand the strong feelings on both sides. For proponents, it's a matter of religious freedom: Where do we get off telling Muslims they can't build a place of worship in America? (Would 10 blocks from Ground Zero be okay? How about Times Square? Off the New Jersey Turnpike?)

Opponents, especially in New York, find the project to be the height of insensitivity, a provocation, an affront to those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack nearly nine years ago.

President Obama fueled the controversy over the weekend when he weighed in strongly on religious freedom one day and told CNN's Ed Henry the next that he wasn't necessarily endorsing the mosque. This is hard for me to fathom. The president remained silent for months before making a statement that White House aides say was important to him even if it was lousy politics. Couldn't he have said everything he wanted on Friday, rather than having to clarify or expand or backtrack on Saturday? The result is that he's made both sides unhappy.

Based on that Salon piece, the turning point came in May, when the New York Post ran a short story under the headline, "Panel approves 'WTC' mosque." That day Pamela Geller, who blogs at Atlas Shrugs and is the author of a book subtitled, "The Obama Administration's War on America," attacked the plan in a post headlined, "Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction." "How disgusting," she declared. Days later, Post columnist Andrea Peyser wrote a piece titled, "Mosque madness at Ground Zero."

Geller appeared on Sean Hannity's radio show. The Washington Examiner ran a column by Diana West titled, "A mosque to mock 9/11's victims and families." And the controversy took off from there. Even Democrats such as Harry Reid are now saying the thing should be built somewhere else, while "Republican Congressional candidates on Monday intensified efforts to inject the divide over construction of an Islamic center near ground zero into the midterm campaigns."

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