A number of newspaper columnists and even Republicans such as former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson praised President Obama for his studied affirmation of American religious rights Friday in supporting the building of a mosque just blocks from ground zero. There, more than 2,700 Americans died on Sept. 11, 2001, at the hands of Islamist terrorists.
But the Obama mosque decision – wading into an issue that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs only days earlier had called "a matter for ... the local community to decide" – is also likely to affirm a broadening political view in the United States that the president is out of step with mainstream America. Nearly 70 percent of people feel an Islamic center near ground zero is disrespectful, even deliberately provocative, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll.
"Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," Obama told attendees at the second annual White House Ramadan dinner Friday night. "But let me be clear: As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And 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. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."
The president is right in hinting that there are legal challenges to the planned $100 million, 13-story Cordoba House community center three blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks. And the issue has set off a storm of controversy in New York and across America, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich among those weighing in.
But while Obama and George W. Bush before him have urged Americans to distinguish between Islam and violent jihadism and to step carefully around Muslim sensitivities, the Cordoba House represents for many Americans less a religious-liberties issue and more a lack of respect for those who died on 9/11.
The mosque controversy, argues British commentator Douglas Murray on The Daily Beast website, highlights a central credibility problem for the Islamic world: While Muslim adherents demand respect for the tenets of their religion, they, in the case of the ground zero mosque, have failed to show equal deference for what's been called "the psychological shadow" of the former twin towers.
"It doesn't matter what Muslims believe, anymore than anybody else," Mr. Murray writes. "But it matters how they behave. If the New York mosque is anything to go by, that test at least is being failed by some American Muslims very conspicuously indeed."
By backing the mosque, Obama sided with the imam behind the Cordoba House project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is set to leave on a State Department-sponsored goodwill trip to the Middle East. But with the president’s stand, he has parted ways with at least some of those connected to the 9/11 victims.
"Barack Obama has abandoned America at the place where America's heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see," said Debra Burlingame, a spokeswoman for some Sept. 11 victims' families and the sister of a pilot killed in the attacks, according to the Associated Press.
Obama's support of the mosque may help the US image in the Muslim world, a key goal of the Obama presidency. But even the president's supporters acknowledge that he'll hardly buoy his struggling ratings in US polls after choosing sides in a project that reverberates so emotionally for millions of Americans.
But establishing a moral path for the country, many argue, is part of a president's responsibility.
"There's little political upside for a President already seen by some as soft on terror, a President whom 1 in 10 Americans insanely believe to be a Muslim, to back the right of this house of worship to locate near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Especially with two-thirds of the public against it," writes the New York Daily News' Joshua Greenman. "He deserves credit for not continuing to sidestep this wrenching question. And for standing on principle."