Making either a brave or foolhardy contribution to a hugely divisive debate that could play a role in the coming mid-term elections, Barack Obama spent the weekend voicing and then revoicing his belief that an Islamic organisation should be allowed to build a mosque on land it has bought near Ground Zero in New York.
The President broke his long silence on a controversy that has inflamed anti-Islamic opinion in the US by twice insisting, on consecutive days, that Muslims have the same right to freedom of religion as anyone else in America. To block the proposed construction, he said, would violate fundamental principles enshrined in the US constitution. "Let me be clear," he said, during a White House dinner to celebrate Ramadan. "As a citizen and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship ... on private property in Lower Manhattan. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."
The premeditated comments aligned the President firmly with both the spirit and the letter of the law. But they also served to agitate his political opponents. Influential figures in the Republican Party predicted yesterday that the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" will remain an important talking-point as America prepares for November's mid-term elections. On Saturday, the President interrupted his holiday in Florida to revisit the issue, choosing words which to at least some critics sounded like a significant rowing back.
"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he claimed. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about. In America, we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion."
Even before Mr Obama first spoke, a shrill dispute was already raging over plans by The Cordoba Initiative, a non-profit organisation representing moderate Muslims, to spend $100m building a 13-storey Islamic cultural centre two blocks north-east of Ground Zero. It will include a prayer room, mosque, and a September 11 memorial. Opponents believe the complex represents an insult to the memory of the roughly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks. Supporters claim it will promote rather than hinder religious tolerance.
Even the victims of 9/11 seem unable to reach a consensus. Debra Burlingame, a sister of one of the pilots killed in the attacks, said yesterday: "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."
However, Colleen Kelly, who lost her brother Bill in the attacks,said the mosque's memorial would be "a fitting tribute" which might help to promote tolerance and understanding. "This is the voice of Islam that I believe needs a wider audience," she said. "This is what moderate Islam is all about."
The US has a relatively tiny Muslim population, at least by European standards, but plans to add to the country's 1,900 mosques have been running up against stiff local opposition. In the past year, public protests have been mounted against proposed new buildings in Tennessee, Wisconsin and California.
The organisation behind the New York building, which was formally approved by planners on 2 August, points out that it will stand several hundred yards from Ground Zero, which cannot even be seen from its entrance. As befits a melting-pot city like New York, at least two other mosques (not to mention a strip club) already exist within a stone's throw of the disaster scene.
Facts haven't been allowed to get in the way of a good story, though, and the controversy has become a staple of talk radio and cable TV news, where it is not uncommon to hear President Obama accused by conspiracy theorists of being a secret Muslim who was born overseas. Sarah Palin even invented a new word to enter the debate, using Twitter to call on peaceful Muslims to "refudiate" the mosque.
Even further to the right, activists have sensed an opportunity to drum up hostility towards a religion they view as profoundly un-American. A church in Florida has announced a plan to oppose the mosque with a "Koran burning" event on 11 September.
The Republican Party's House Minority Leader John Boehner said that his party's position was that the mosque was disrespectful. "The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn't necessarily make it the right thing to do. That is the essence of tolerance, peace and understanding," he said.
The Texan Senator John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, warned yesterday that Mr Obama would pay for his contribution to the debate at Novembers elections. He said the President was "disconnected from the mainstream of America".
Islam in America
* The exact number of American Muslims is unknown – the US census does not record religious affiliation – but most estimates suggest that they make up around 7 million, or 2 per cent, of the population.
* There are fewer than 2,000 mosques in the US, many of them makeshift prayer rooms. New York City has around 100 mosques, more than 90 per cent of which have been built in the last 40 years.
* One of the most powerful figures in 17th-century New York was a Muslim: Anthony Janszoon van Salee was a wealthy Dutch Moroccan landowner and merchant whose father was an admiral in the Moroccan navy. Van Salee was also one of the first settlers of Brooklyn.
* California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Texas and Ohio are the states which have the highest concentrations of followers of Islam.
* One in five US Muslims is a convert to Islam.
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