by Samara Greenberg, Jewish Policy Center
When it comes to the Ground Zero Mosque, just about everybody has an opinion. After skirting the controversy for weeks, President Barack Obama weighed in Friday evening. Speaking to a crowd at the White House gathered there to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, President Obama said: “…I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan…Time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can…stay true to our core values and emerge stronger for it. So it must be and will be today.”
Meanwhile, just days later, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas co-founder and leader in the Gaza Strip, added his two cents. In an interview on Aaron Klein Investigative Radio on WABC-AM, al-Zahar said that Muslims “have to build” a mosque near the Ground Zero site, as well everywhere, so that Muslims have a place to pray, like Jews and Christians.
But with more than 100 mosques in New York, and no synagogues in places such as Saudi Arabia or Jews in the Gaza Strip, al-Zahar’s comments are proposterous. And, while the president backtracked just one day later, claiming he was only speaking of the right to build the Ground Zero Mosque rather than the “wisdom” in doing so, the damage has been done.
It is hard to tell why the president decided to speak out after first claiming the issue was a local one. Perhaps he was attempting to reach out to the Muslim world, where his favorability ratings fell between 2009 and 2010. But with far more complex issues still in play, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the issue of Guantanamo Bay, it’s unlikely that Obama’s words on the Ground Zero Mosque will make much of an impact.
Rather, in speaking out about the mosque, the president took a stance that runs counter to the opinions of most Americans. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll out last week found that nearly 70% of Americans oppose the mosque while only 29% support its construction.
There’s no question that the U.S. Constitution – unlike in the Gaza Strip under Hamas and al-Zahar – provides the Ground Zero Mosque’s planners with the right to build their Islamic Center. Indeed, the controversy is not about the question of constitutional rights and the American value of freedom of religion, but of moral action and respect for those who perished on September 11 and their family members and friends who continue to suffer. There are many ways to exercise freedom of religion in the United States. Building a mosque with questionable funding at Ground Zero is tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound.