Even President Barack Obama could not refrain from weighing in on plans for a 13-story, $100 million Islamic community center and mosque planned for two blocks from Ground Zero. But after coming out in support of the “right” of Muslims to build the center during a Ramadan iftar at the White House on Friday, Obama “clarified” his comment on Saturday, pointing out that he had not endorsed the facility’s construction.
The US president’s rush to qualify his position was, apparently, a result of pressure from fellow Democrats who feared not only that his statement would detract from the party’s efforts to focus on the economy ahead of the November 2 mid-term elections, but that it was far out of step with popular sentiment and thus cause real political damage to the party. According to a CNN poll, 68 percent of Americans oppose the idea of building a Muslim center so close to the site where thousands of Americans lost their lives in an attack perpetrated by Muslim extremists. Now Democrats are afraid many swing votes could be lost.
Not surprisingly, the majority of American Jews seemed to support the building of the Cordoba House, as the Islamic center will be known. Jews have a long tradition of liberalism, as neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz lamented in his 2009 book Why Are Jews Liberals? Since 1928, the average Jewish vote for the Democrat in presidential elections has been 75% – far higher than among any other ethno-religious group. And Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote. Only blacks voted for him in higher percentages.
Both the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the American Jewish Committee expressed support for the construction of Cordoba House (also called Park 51), though they questioned the moderate credentials of the mosque’s investors. In a move that took into consideration the special sensitivities of the site, AJC executive director David Harris called on those behind the project to categorically denounce terrorism and provide full transparency of funding sources.
Nevertheless, a JCRC-NY representative joined Michael Bloomberg, New York’s Jewish mayor, on the podium as he announced official approval for the Muslim initiative and denounced opponents of the mosque. Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, the left-wing, pro-Israel activist group, went one step further, criticizing anyone who dared demand that sponsors of the mosque reveal their sources of income or repudiate terrorism: “What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be?”
The Anti-Defamation League’s national director Abe Foxman, one of the few Jewish leaders to oppose Park 51, was widely attacked. In an editorial that distorted his position, the left-wing Forward claimed the ADL had “sullied a once-noble reputation by siding against religious liberty.” All that Foxman had said was that “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain unnecessarily and that is not right.” This was the same claim used by the ADL in the 1980s and 1990s against the building of a Catholic convent at Auschwitz.
COGENT ARGUMENTS for and against Park 51 can be made that balance the
right to religious expression with the need to respect the memories of
the victims of 9/11, and the feelings of their families and their loved
ones. But what has surfaced in the heat of the controversy surrounding
the project is a dogmatic brand of pseudo liberalism held by some
American Jewish leaders that delegitimizes the views of those opposed to
the project and fails to grasp the complexities of building an Islamic
center adjacent to Ground Zero, the site of a mass murder perpetrated in
the name of a distorted version of Islam.
There are signs that common sense will win out in the end. Shari
el-Gamal, developer of the Islamic center, has shown interest in a
proposal by New York Governor David Paterson to relocate to a different
site, possibly on state-owned land.
As Obama correctly noted, Muslims have the right to build an Islamic
center near Ground Zero. That does not necessarily mean it is the right
thing to do.