08/16/2010 08:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Reframes Mosque Debate

President Barack Obama, in a White House Ramadan address last Friday, expressed his thoughts on the "Ground Zero mosque" debate, and in doing so not only got it exactly right, but also managed to change the debate in a considerable way which few have noticed yet. Because in his comments Friday (and in his off-the-cuff comment the next day), the president refocused the debate from the notion of "should be allowed" to the question of "should." In doing so, Obama elevated the level of the debate for both him and the project's detractors.

The initial controversy over building an Islamic cultural center two and a half blocks away from "Ground Zero" was cast in the harsh light of "there oughta be a law" by most of the people who were outraged at the very idea. A mother who lost her child on 9/11 put it thusly: "I think it's despicable, and I think it's atrocious that anyone would even consider allowing them to build a mosque near the World Trade Center." Note that "allowing them to build." As I said, before the zoning board ruled, the argument was that the government should act, and prevent the mosque from being built. Unfortunately, this would have been impossibly unconstitutional -- the government cannot prevent a mosque from being built there, unless we're all ready to throw the First Amendment in the garbage can. This fact, though, didn't stop those opposed to the idea from demanding that the government "do something" about the plans to build the mosque (Bill of Rights be damned!).

The entire controversy started from this basic position: the mosque should not be allowed to be built. But Obama has moved the framework of this debate, even though most in the media largely missed it this weekend (preferring to chase the "news cycle" story about whether he had "walked his support back" or not, which was pretty ridiculous). Obama showed that the argument is not a simple one, and in fact has two major segments that need to be addressed separately. The first is the question of whether or not the mosque "should be allowed" to be built. The second is whether it "should" be built.

It sounds like splitting hairs, which is why the media thought (much to their delight) that they had somehow caught Obama in some sort of contradiction. They hadn't. Obama, Saturday morning, merely separated the two issues for people who hadn't really grasped the implications of what he had said the night before.

Obama, who was (if you'll remember) previously a professor of constitutional law, came out very strongly against any sort of government interference in the decision to build a mosque anywhere that New York City had zoned appropriately. This really shouldn't be all that shocking, as it is truly the only position which can honestly be held in accordance with the Constitution. Any other position is to advocate for enshrining bigotry in our laws -- "a church may be built here, but not a mosque." This is, at its core, seriously un-American.

But there is a second issue here, one that Obama addressed in his remarks Saturday. This is the issue of whether a mosque "should" be built on the site. And that is an issue which is fully open for debate. Even outright bigotry is still an acceptable position on this question, if by "acceptable" one means "faithful to our Constitution." Every citizen is free to argue until they are blue in the face that a mosque should not be built at the site (for whatever their reason), and everyone is free to attempt to convince the imam not to build a mosque there, in any legal way they choose. That is the force of public opinion, and it can indeed be a mighty thing. Public opinion has already led to the imam deciding to include a memorial to the 9/11 victims in the plans, and has convinced him to change the name of the project. Of course, it's a free country, and he could indeed have remained firm and refused to do either -- without having to worry that he would "not be allowed" to do so by law.

The real news was that Obama chose to insert himself in the debate, of course. Previously, the White House's position was that they had no comment on a "local issue." The fervor was even dying down a bit, ever since the planning board had ruled that the project could go forward, except in the right-wing media. Obama (as I heard one breathless reporter describe it this weekend) "poured gasoline on the fire" by inserting his remarks into the fray.

But I have to say, Obama got this one right. He stood up for a principle, strongly. He didn't care whether public opinion agreed with him or not, because the principle was the important thing. And it's a pretty good principle to be standing up for. His whole speech is worth reading, if you've just heard excerpts (it's a very short speech). Every paragraph consistently says pretty much the same thing: the government does not discriminate on the basis of religion. Here is but one example:

But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same 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 unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.

Note that "not be treated differently by their government" phrase. This was Obama's core argument, and it is indeed unshakeable.

The media, apparently, heard a different speech. Or maybe they just didn't take the time to read it or listen to it. Because when Obama pointed out the next day that he wasn't talking about "the wisdom" of building a mosque there, the media went into feeding-frenzy mode, convinced that Obama was somehow "walking back" his earlier remarks. He wasn't -- he was clarifying that he had been standing up for a basic constitutional right, and wasn't even addressing the overriding issue about whether it was a good idea or not. Which (again, read his speech) was exactly right.

As I said, this changes the tenor of the debate. Because it is not a contradiction -- or, if it is a contradiction, then it is one shared by many Americans -- to be supportive of the right to build the mosque but also to be against actually building it. A recent poll commissioned by none other than Fox News showed this in stark terms. While 64 percent of the people said it would be wrong to build the mosque there, 61 percent of the same people said the group has the right to build it there.

Rights, though, are thankfully not subject to the whim of the electorate, because they are guaranteed to all. Therefore public opinion polls are largely meaningless when it comes to basic rights. But the appropriateness of the project is another kettle of fish entirely. And it is a subject which while not subject to public opinion, is doubtlessly influenced by public opinion. Even bigoted public opinion.

The entire story, to me at least, seems to be somewhat overblown. There is another mosque a mere two blocks from the site under discussion. Using the logic of the detractors of the new project, this mosque should also probably be moved further away. But I have yet to see anyone advocating this position (although I fully admit, I don't read a whole lot of right-wing opinion, so I could very well be wrong). And -- horror of horrors -- Islamic services are held inside the Pentagon, which was also attacked on 9/11. Using the anti-mosque logic, there should also be loud cries to ban this worship from the "hallowed ground" of a 9/11 attack site. So far, I haven't heard any (see previous qualification).

There are also dark intimations about the whole project, and the imam in charge of it. The plan is to build a community center -- complete with a movie theater and other secular usage -- with a prayer room in it, two and a half blocks away from the World Trade Center site.

I have to digress here for a moment, because one tangent that bugs me is the phrase that detractors have latched upon for describing the "hallowed ground" they are talking about: "in the shadow of Ground Zero." This is a really stupid phrase. I will give credit for the poetic nature of the imagery, but when actually examined, this concept is truly laughable. First off, "Ground Zero" is a hole in the ground. Holes in the ground do not cast shadows, unless you count the shadows actually cast inside the hole. Literally, the phrase is meaningless. But even taking it at the intended meaning: "in the shadow that used to be there from the World Trade Center twin towers," it's still pretty silly. Because if that truly was the yardstick being used here, then we'd have to draw an arc (a little more than a half-circle) around the World Trade Center site, with the radius of the arc being dependent on what angle the sun reaches during the Winter Solstice (when the shadow's sweep would be greatest). I'm no civil engineer, so I cannot tell you how many blocks of Manhattan this would encompass, but the reason it's a silly metric to use is that the arc would only cut to the east, north, and west. Meaning you could build right next door to the site -- to the south -- and not be caught "in the shadow" of any building built there.

But, to come out of the shadows (as it were), opponents of the project have been casting similar darkness upon Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, with all sorts of rumors and unfounded suspicions. Here is a fact seldom pointed out in all of this mudslinging -- Rauf has, quite obviously, gone through some background checks with the federal government. According to Hendrick Hertzberg of The New Yorker magazine, "The F.B.I. tapped [Rauf] to conduct 'sensitivity training' for agents and cops." He is about to embark on the third trip to the Middle East -- paid for by the American taxpayers -- to talk about religious tolerance in America. As a State Department spokesman said:

Imam Feisal will be traveling to Qatar, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. on a U.S. Government-sponsored trip to the Middle East. He will discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance. ... We have about 1,200 of these kinds of programs every year, sending experts on all fields overseas. Last year, we had 52 trips that were specifically focused on religious -- promoting religious tolerance. We will expect to have roughly the same number of programs this year. For Imam Feisal, this will be his third trip under this program. In 2007, he visited Bahrain, Morocco, the U.A.E. and Qatar. And earlier this year in January, he also visited Egypt. So we have a long-term relationship with him. His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States.

Got that? Rauf not only helped the F.B.I. train agents and cops, but he's also participated in a State Department program to promote religious tolerance. And has been doing so for years. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, when sent on the first of these trips, George W. Bush was president.

This doesn't exactly fit in with the rumor and innuendo about the imam from those desperately trying to paint him as some sort of terrorist or terrorist-lover, does it? One assumes that either the F.B.I. or the State Department (or both) have done a full background check on this guy, and he came up squeaky clean. If he hadn't, I simply don't believe he would have been allowed to participate in any sort of official program from either federal department.

But no matter where the debate about the "Ground Zero mosque" goes in the next few weeks, even rumor and innuendo and wild-eyed conspiracy theories can all be seen as part of the normal flow of American public discussion. Even flat-out bigotry. As I said, it's a free country, and every citizen is free to espouse any view they wish.

And there is indeed a rational argument, free of bigotry and innuendo, to be made to the imam to convince him not to build at his chosen location. This argument hinges on sensitivity. Disney famously backed down from plans to build a "historical" theme park right next to a Civil War battlefield, due to overwhelmingly negative public opinion. And, while it didn't happen in our country, religious sensitivities can be taken into account as well, as when a group of nuns decided not to build next to a Nazi death camp, in deference to overwhelming public opinion against the project. I'm not saying I completely buy into the sensitivity argument myself, but it has to be seen as a valid reason to argue that the imam should consider moving his project.

This is where the argument now lies -- in the realm of public opinion. Whether based on sensitivity or based on naked fear or hatred of Muslims, this is the arena these arguments will now be debated in. As they should be. Whether the arguments range into religious intolerance or not, they will all be about whether the mosque "should" be built. Again, as they should be.

What Obama managed to do this weekend was to change the whole framework of this debate. Even the critics of the mosque now are beginning to couch their language in phrases like "well, we're not saying the government should stop it, we're saying the imam should rethink the idea." This is likely why Obama inserted himself into the debate in the first place. As a constitutional scholar, he felt it was important to make the point that the government should never have the authority to make such a discriminatory decision, because those are the very freedoms we're fighting to protect against enemies who attack us. Saturday, without contradiction, he further pointed out that defending someone's rights is not the equivalent of defending their words or actions. Here is his full quote from Saturday morning:

I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about.

Rather than "walking his support back" (as the entire media universe gleefully decided), Obama was pointing out the difference between the two concepts. Which is a healthy addition to the discussion. Reasonable people can disagree on the question of whether the mosque "should" be built, in other words, but it goes against everything this country stands for to try to argue that the mosque "should not be allowed" to be built by government decree.

Personally, I see no contradiction at all. Even if the media read him wrong, President Obama forcefully changed the entire framing of the debate, and in a very healthy direction -- and he did so without interjecting himself into the raging public-opinion debate about whether the project was "proper" or not. He showed true presidential leadership, and political courage. And now that he has done so, the debate will continue, but it will hopefully continue on a much different level than before.


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