Making of a mosque mess

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."

Here are some of the latest voices. A National Review editorial chides the president:

"Obama's embarrassing backtracking highlights a more important lesson about the mosque controversy: It doesn't have anything to do with the free exercise of religion. As Obama spectacularly demonstrated over the last couple of days, you can be a stalwart friend of religious freedom and still not necessarily think the mosque project is a good idea. Indeed, no reasonable opponent of the project contests the right of Muslims to worship as they please in this country -- the First Amendment religious rights of Muslims never have been in question, at all. The critics insist only that this particular location for a project led by these particular people -- including an imam who cannot bring himself to condemn Hamas -- is unseemly and ill-considered. That position in no way implies a disregard for the First Amendment.

"No one can seriously doubt that the organizers of the mosque project would have a legal right -- assuming the zoning and permitting were in order -- to use their property to open a 9/11 museum from the perspective that the attacks were provoked by America's depredations against Islam. . . . But surely even the Michael Bloombergs of the world would summon their moral disapproval of such a project, secure in the knowledge they hadn't violated the First Amendment by speaking out against it.

"Once the obfuscations about the free exercise of religion are cleared away, the question at Ground Zero becomes whether the project is, in Obama's word, wise. Most Americans and most New Yorkers think not, for obvious reasons. It is a site that would have been in the shadow of the World Trade Center before it was knocked down by terrorists acting in the name of Islam."

Daily Beast's Tunku Varadarajan says Obama had it right the first time:

"A mere 24 hours after he threw his presidential weight behind the proposed mosque near New York's ground zero--in a display of statesmanship that was delicious as much for its rarity as for its apparent cojones--Obama recalibrated his position in a frightened, mealy mouthed attempt to placate the anti-mosque opposition (which, depressingly, appears to comprise almost the entire Republican Party). . . .

"At first sight, this may seem but a minor alteration in tone, or nuance. But in political terms, it is tectonic, reducing Obama in stature from a brave man, standing tall against the forces of intolerance, to a picayune, insecure trimmer who wishes to be all things to all people, a man who is so unsure of his own principles that he will seek to reinterpret words, just a day after he uttered them, that Mayor Bloomberg described as 'clarion.' "

That seems overly harsh. But the press did convey the impression that Obama was retreating.

Ross Douthat digs deeper, seeing a clash of two strains in our national life:

"The first America, not surprisingly, views the project as the consummate expression of our nation's high ideals. 'This is America,' President Obama intoned last week, 'and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.' The construction of the mosque, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Yorkers, is as important a test of the principle of religious freedom 'as we may see in our lifetimes.'

"The second America begs to differ. It sees the project as an affront to the memory of 9/11, and a sign of disrespect for the values of a country where Islam has only recently become part of the public consciousness. And beneath these concerns lurks the darker suspicion that Islam in any form may be incompatible with the American way of life.

"This is typical of how these debates usually play out. The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics."

And keep this is mind: According to a Gallup survey earlier this year, 43 percent of Americans admit to feeling some prejudice toward followers of Islam.

At the Nation, Katha Pollitt blames the right:

"Park51, a k a Cordoba House, won't be a mosque; it will be a $100 million, thirteen-story cultural center with a pool, gym, auditorium and prayer room. It won't be at Ground Zero; it will be two blocks away. (By the way, two mosques have existed in the neighborhood for years.) It won't be a shadowy storefront where radical clerics recruit young suicide bombers; it will be a showplace of moderate Islam, an Islam for the pluralist West--the very thing wise heads in the United States and Europe agree is essential to integrate Muslim immigrants and prevent them from becoming fundamentalists and even terrorists. 'It's a shame we even have to talk about this,' says Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime supporter of the project.

"Apparently we do, because the same right-wingers who talk about the Constitution as if Sarah Palin had tweeted it herself apparently skipped over the First Amendment, where freedom of speech and worship are guaranteed to all. 'America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization,' claims Newt Gingrich, who argues that the United States can't let Muslims build a 'mosque' 'at Ground Zero' because Saudi Arabia doesn't permit the building of churches and synagogues. For a man who warns that Sharia law is coming soon to a courthouse near you, Gingrich seems strangely eager to accept Saudi standards of religious tolerance. Isn't the whole point that ours is an open society and theirs is closed? 'This is a desecration,' says former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. 'Nobody would allow something like that at Pearl Harbor. Let's have some respect for who died there and why they died there. . . .

"The attempt by Gingrich and others to portray Park51 as part of a planned Islamic takeover of the United States is shameful and ridiculous. America is a secular democracy in which at least three-quarters of the population are committed Christians, and hedonism is a way of life. Almost nobody, even among American Muslims, is interested in the supposed aims of militant Islam -- polygyny, forcing women into burqas, banning pork and alcohol and music, instituting Sharia law. Fear of Muslim rule is even more preposterous than what it has so efficiently replaced -- fear of communist rule -- and one day it will look just as bizarre."

Mark Halperin pens an open letter to the Republican Party:

"The political potency of the issue is obvious. Polls overwhelmingly show the president has put himself on the wrong side of public opinion. Opposition to the new facility arouses acute emotion and creates near total unity among relatives of 9/11 victims, first responders, Republican officeholders, potential 2012 presidential candidates, Tea Party members, the Fox News--talk radio--Drudge Report echo machine and many of the highly coveted swing and occasional voters whom you will need at the polls to win in November. . . .

"Yes, Republicans, you can take advantage of this heated circumstance, backed by the families of the 9/11 victims, in their most emotional return to the public stage since 2001.

"But please don't do it. There are a handful of good reasons to oppose allowing the Islamic center to be built so close to Ground Zero, particularly the family opposition and the availability of other, less raw locations. But what is happening now -- the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric -- is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve."

Think anyone will listen?

Time's Michael Scherer says the president's encounter with Ed Henry may prove to be a setback:

"President Obama has another reason not to talk to his press corps on the record. As a rule, Obama avoids much interaction with those who follow him on a day to day basis. He will have reporters and columnists over for the occasional off-the-record lunch, but the daily chit chat is kept to a minimum. In this way, he distinguishes himself from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, two more natural schmoozers. But Saturday's gaffe represents the second time this year that an unscheduled chit chat with the press corps caused him big problems. In late April, he came to the back of Air Force One and said 'there may not be appetite' for immigration reform, an admission dubbed by one reporter Obama's 'fatal flinch' that infuriated Senate leaders and Hispanic voters, and effectively ended any hope for the bill passing this year.

"Obama's hesitance for impromptu moments with reporters is bad for people like me. And it may, in some ways, be bad for democracy, as voters are denied the opportunity to see their leader without a script."

No presidential encounter with a reporter is ever truly off-the-cuff. Aides regularly prep the commander-in-chief for questions that might arise. Obama obviously wanted to make the clarifying point. There was no gotcha question involved. It would be a shame if this led to fewer interactions with his press corps.

Bonds buying affection

"Slugger Barry's Bonds' donation of $20,000 to the National Association of Black Journalists is fraught with irony," says Lance Williams.

"Throughout his long and exciting baseball career, the former San Francisco Giants star -- now retired and awaiting trial on perjury charges -- routinely treated the journalists assigned to cover him like dirt."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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