A mere 24 hours after he threw his presidential weight behind the proposed mosque near New York’s ground zero—in a display of statesmanship that was delicious as much for its rarity as for its apparent cojones—Obama recalibrated his position in a frightened, mealy mouthed attempt to placate the anti-mosque opposition (which, depressingly, appears to comprise almost the entire Republican Party).
On Friday, Obama said, in words that were plainly at war with the conventional wisdom that holds that the mosque is offensive to popular American sentiment: “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.”
Obama missed the chance to hammer home the point that there can—and will—be a mosque near ground zero because… this is America, damn it!
Sharif El-Gamal, developer of the Ground Zero mosque, defends it in an interview with NY1.
Many of us who are libertarian—in other words, people opposed as much to the subversion of private rights by a majoritarian maumau-ing as we are to curbs on private affairs by government intervention—found ourselves in pleasantly astonished agreement with the most statist president since FDR. No one hearing his remarks, or reading of them, could have been in any doubt that he was fully, unequivocally, behind the construction of the mosque. So much so that New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the first public official of consequence to stand up to the mosque’s opponents, described the president’s remarks as “a clarion defense of the freedom of religion.”
The infatuation was not to last more than a day: On Saturday, no doubt disconcerted by the backlash to his remarks, and berated by Democratic chieftains who see November’s elections slipping inexorably away, Obama chose to recalibrate formally his position on the mosque, saying that his remarks were not intended to be about the “wisdom” of constructing a mosque near ground zero: Instead, he was “commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.”
At first sight, this may seem but a minor alteration in tone, or nuance. But in political terms, it is tectonic, reducing Obama in stature from a brave man, standing tall against the forces of intolerance, to a picayune, insecure trimmer who wishes to be all things to all people, a man who is so unsure of his own principles that he will seek to reinterpret words, just a day after he uttered them, that Mayor Bloomberg described as “clarion.” (Can something “clarion” really require explication, one wonders?)
• Mark McKinnon: Obama’s Bold Leadership on the Mosque• Full Coverage of the Ground Zero MosqueWhat is more, there has never been any dispute that the proponents of the mosque have every right to build near ground zero. The mosque’s opponents have appealed not to the law, in their attempt to stop the mosque, but to sentiment, emotions, politics—even notions of civilization; and I would be the last to say that the opposition to the mosque, when respectfully (and non-apocalyptically) expressed, is inconsequential. On the contrary, there are many good people, hurt and wounded people, who are in sincere opposition to what they regard as an offensive symbol. But none of them—and I stress this—has a legal case that survives a moment’s scrutiny.
Ultimately, the debate has become one about America and its values, and it is here that Obama first won, and then so sadly lost, my support. In resorting to his pedantic and fearful reinterpretation of his own remarks, Obama missed the chance to hammer home the point that there can—and will—be a mosque near ground zero because… this is America, damn it!
Whereas Newt Gingrich and the like would seek to reduce us to civilizational pygmies, arguing that “there should be no mosque near ground zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” Obama had the chance to make a larger, grander, more beautiful point. America will let a mosque be built near ground zero—yes, hallowed ground, defiled by Islamist terrorists—because we are a great nation, more tolerant, more civilized, more open to debate and to resolution of conflict by words, more enlightened, elevated, proud, polished, humane, unafraid, accommodating, gracious, and resilient than any other place in the world.
That is what Obama should have said to those who railed at him. Instead, he cowered—and diminished us all.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)