There has been much debate about Obama’s statements about the ridiculous mosque controversy in New York City, whether his statement was strong enough, if he was waffling and trying to please everyone. Here’s what I think he should have said the first time, with no backpeddling or caveats necessary after the fact.
The proposed opening of an Islamic center a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood has sparked a good deal of controversy in some circles. The families of those who died in the terrorist attack on 9/11 are divided on the question, with some of them opposing the project and some supporting it. In either case, their emotional reactions are understandable and all too human.
But this is a nation of laws that respect well-defined freedoms and the freedom of religion and the right to own property are at the top of the list of liberties that the constitution seeks to protect. And we do not condition those rights on the feelings of other people, nor do we take them away because others may be bothered by how one exercises those rights.
And no matter how understandable the emotions it provokes on either side may be, the organization that owns the building are in full compliance with the legal zoning regulations and there is no possible legal basis for denying them the right to open the Islamic center that they wish to open. Any attempt to deny them that right would, quite correctly, be overturned by the federal courts.
That does not make the owners of the building immune from criticism. For those who are offended by the project, the same First Amendment that protects their right to open the center also protects your right to speak out against it. And the courts and my administration will guard your right to protest the project as strongly as we will guard their right to complete it.
But if you seek to deny the right to open the Islamic center, either through futile legal filings or through direct action of some kind, you will not only be damaging the rule of law, you will be damaging this nation’s ability to fight a comprehensive war on terrorism inspired by the radical views of some Muslims around the world.
That war is absolutely dependent upon the cooperation and bravery of moderate, pro-American Muslims both at home and abroad. At great risk to their own lives, thousands and thousands of such people work every day with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and with our nation’s armed forces both here and in Iraq, Afghistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other nations where Al Qaeda operates.
By pushing the idea that all Muslims are a threat to the United States, you demean and dehumanize the courageous efforts of those people who are fighting on our side and play directly into the hands of the most radical and dangerous elements within the Islamic world.
Osama Bin Laden sells his followers on the idea that the United States is at war not merely with him and his violent cohorts but with the entire Muslim world, that America is a Christian empire seeking to wipe out Islam. That is a powerful recruiting tool for Al Qaeda all around the world and the more this nation behaves in ways that support that position the more powerful it becomes and the more moderate and otherwise peaceful Muslims will be pushed into the terrorist fold.
That is why it is more important than ever that we remain a nation that treats all religions equally and fairly and that we apply the law to individuals and organizations of every religion with scrupulous fairness. Anything less than that is a confirmation to the Muslim world that Bin Laden is right. Anything less than that undermines our ability to win the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world and undermines our ability to win the battle against the extremists among them.
We must not stoop to their level. We must not demonize Arabs or Muslims in the same manner that the Muslim extremists demonize Americans, Jews and Christians. We must not deny American Muslims the right to practice their religion freely and equally in this country in the same manner that many Muslim nations deny Christians, Jews and others the right to practice their religion in those nations. Doing so is not only contrary to our own laws and values, it also damages our national security.
That is why my administration is supporting the full application of the Bill of Rights to all sides in this controversy, both the right to build the center and the right of others to speak out against it.
No ambiguity, no equivocation and no back peddling necessary. And it puts the opponents on the defensive, having to defend their anti-constitutional position.