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Journal of America Team:

 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

 Managing Editor:
Mertze Dahlin   

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Obama endorses Cordoba House

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

As the Cordoba House project has become the latest rallying issue for the Christian right, Tea Party proponents and Republican operatives, President Barrack Obama has forcefully supported the construction of an Islamic complex near New York's Ground Zero.  Speaking at a White House dinner, on August 13, marking the holy month of Ramadan, he said that opposing the project is at odds with American values.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. 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," President Obama said adding "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."

The President pointed out that Thomas Jefferson was the first American President to host a White House iftar, in honor of Tunisian dignitaries over 200 years ago. He noted that Americans of various faiths - including Jews and Catholics - seeking to build their houses of worship have faced discrimination in the past, they were able to overcome those challenges and enriched our nation's pluralism in the process.

Reporting President Obama’s speech, Washington Post said the president 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.

Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson of Washington Post wrote that 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.  The pointed out: “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.”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg of New York Times wrote: “After weeks of avoiding the high-profile battle over the center — his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said last week that the president did not want to “get involved in local decision-making” — Mr. Obama stepped squarely into the thorny debate. The aides to Mr. Obama say privately that he has always felt strongly about the proposed community center and mosque, but the White House did not want to weigh in until local authorities made a decision on the proposal, planned for two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Last week, New York City removed the final construction hurdle for the project, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg spoke forcefully in favor of it.”

Bloomberg welcomed President Obama’s stance: “This proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime, and I applaud President Obama’s clarion defense of the freedom of religion tonight.”

Not surprisingly, responding to Mr. Obama’s remarks, Rick A. Lazio, a Republican candidate for New York governor and a former member of the House of Representatives, said that the president was still “not listening to New Yorkers.”  “With over 100 mosques in New York City, this is not an issue of religion, but one of safety and security,” he said.

Similarly, 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."

American Muslim and Arab groups have welcomed President Obama's strong support for building an Islamic community center near Ground Zero.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) President, Ms. Sara Najjar-Wilson, stated, “ADC thanks President Obama for his reminder that tolerance and recognition of religious freedom are inherent in our Constitutional rights in the United States and must apply to all people alike.  We commend the President’s courage and willingness to speak out against religious discrimination.” 

"We welcome President Obama's strong statement of support for American Muslim religious rights and hope his remarks will serve as encouragement to those who are challenging the rising level of Islamophobia in our society," said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. "We urge other national political and religious leaders to speak out in defense of the freedom of religion and equality of all Americans enshrined in our Constitution."

Awad urged the president to take a similarly forthright stand against the planned burning of Qurans, Islam's revealed text, by a Florida church on the upcoming anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

"The President's made a historic speech in favor of religious freedom. He and Mayor Bloomberg have set the standard for other political leaders to preserve America's open society," said MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati. "The President landed a major blow against Al-Qaeda's false narrative that America is at war with Islam. We hope that other religious and civic groups will stand behind the President's commitment for openness and tolerance."

MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati along with intern Saaliha Khan were honored to be guests at the event.  MPAC intern Saaliha Khan, a student at Georgetown University, had the privilege of sitting at the President's table. Al-Marayati and Khan thanked the President for his stand, reaffirmed the Muslim American community's commitment to civic engagement, and committed to empowering more young Muslim American leaders to engage in public service in our nation's capitol and around the country.

The proposed 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 pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has joined the controversy over the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, New York. On July 28, 2010, the ADL issued a statement indicating that some of the opposition to the mosque is grounded in bigotry, and that those arguing that the mosque builders harbor ill intent are misguided. “Yet ADL is opposing the construction of the mosque anyway, on the grounds that it will cause 9/11 victims unnecessary pain."

Why such a fierce opposition to the Cordoba House? Stephan Salisbury is right when he says the mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it’s about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation’s psyche. “The mere presence of Muslims at prayer is now enough to trigger angry protests, as Bridgeport, Connecticut, police discovered last week. Those opposing the construction of the center in New York City are drawing on what amounts to a decade of government-stoked xenophobia about Muslims, now gathering strength and visibility in a nation full of deep economic anxieties and increasingly aggressive far-right grassroots groups. Lower Manhattan and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Temecula, California, are all in this together. And it is not going to go away simply because the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission gave its unanimous blessing to the Islamic center plan. Since that is the case, it’s worth pausing to consider what has happened here over the past 10 years.”

It will not be too much to say, as David Rosen pointed out, the Cordoba House project has become the latest rallying issue for the Christian right, Tea Party proponents and Republican operatives in their war to impose moralistic and corporatist values on America.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the  Editor -in-Chief of the Journal of America.