On Friday night, the President of the United States plunged into the long-simmering controversy surrounding a proposed Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan, mischaracterizing the underlying issues while avoiding a clear position on the project itself. In his carefully prepared remarks to a religious Muslim audience, Mr. Obama chastised opponents of the Mosque for disregarding time-honored principles of religious liberty, and interfering with freedom of worship for Muslims. The next day, he insisted that he never meant to express an opinion on the wisdom or suitability of the specific site for the new center, implying that he might even sympathize with calls for its relocation.
In the process of his unfolding explanations, the president seemed to be arguing with phantoms, or with straw men. None of the prominent critics of Cordoba House deny that Muslims deserve the same freedom as other religious groups to build houses of worship to serve their adherents.
But no faith community can use religious liberty as an excuse to build whatever they want wherever they want it. All major projects – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or secular – must pass tests of suitability and, in some cases, change plans to accommodate community concerns.
In the case of this particular project, the widespread discomfort goes far beyond worries of direct connections with Al Qaeda or other radicals.
No, all Muslims aren’t the same, but all Mosques are the same, in one important sense at least: they all celebrate Islam. They exalt its teachings, traditions, history and adherents.
Yes, American Muslims enjoy a right to celebrate their faith in their mosques.
But it remains wildly inappropriate to celebrate and glorify one particular faith at the scene of one of the most notorious crimes in its history.
The lot Imam Rauf has selected holds no sacred meaning for Muslims, but profound significance to the families and friends who lost loved ones in the immediate vicinity. Only one important event in Islamic history ever occurred near the site proposed for the most ambitious Muslim center in the nation – and that event involved the mass murder of 3,000 American innocents.
If moderate Muslims seek to build on this particular site they should be a mourning monument to the fallen, with explicit acknowledgement of the twisted, evil theology that motivated their killers. It shouldn’t be a glitzy, 13-story, triumphal structure that aims to become the most visible national center for Islamic faith and culture.