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August 25, 2010

Obama retreats

Reuel S. Amdur

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Just as the opposition to the so-called Ground Zero mosque was beginning to dissipate, it got a new boost. Some Democratic politicians who saw themselves in tight races climbed on board, albeit often with a less virulent tone than their Republican opponents. The major factor in the renewed life given to this intolerance, however, was the backtracking by President Barack Obama.

Obama had made a statement to a group of Muslim Democrats in which he came down forcefully on the right to build the Islamic centre close to Ground Zero.

Then he had second thoughts. Seeing that anti-Muslim sentiments were running high and that Republicans were making headway on the Ground Zero theme, Obama nuanced his position.

Yes, Muslims have the right to build the mosque at the location selected, but he was not prepared to comment on the wisdom of their exercising that right.

This new position provided the green light for bigots and offered the sunshine soldiers in the civil rights struggle an out for opposing the Cordoba Initiative.

He gave them the cover of legitimacy.

Obama took the position of the Anti-Defamation League and ran with it.

The league, faced with mounting criticism both within the Jewish community and in the larger faith community, chose to withdraw from the controversy, but others picked up the ball, including Obama.

It is not clear at this writing if the Cordoba Initiative will go ahead.

Currently there are rumours that they may move to a new location, possibly with the prospect of donated land. Yet, with the precedent of the Ground Zero hatefest, the Cordoba group may encounter opposition at some other location as well.

While Obama clearly demonstrated his feet of clay, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stands out as a man of principle, prepared to defend freedom and equality even in the face of the majority of New Yorkers who oppose the chosen location.

In a speech to an interfaith gathering of clergy, he cited New York’s history of religious intolerance.

In the 1650s, Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant refused to allow Jews to build a synagogue and forbade Quaker meetings.

When non-Quakers petitioned on behalf of the Quakers, he had the organizer of the campaign imprisoned and then banished. In the following century, Catholics were prevented from exercising their religion.

“The World Trade Center Site,” said Bloomberg, “will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves–and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans–if we said ‘no’ to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values–and play into our enemies’ hands–if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists–and we should not stand for that.”

Bloomberg has suffered a precipitous drop in popularity for his stand, but he has not faltered. That is what heroism is about, and that is what separates him from Obama.

Those who espouse the viewpoint of the Anti-Defamation League, that Cordoba has the right to build at their chosen location but that they should not do so, are concerned about uneasiness that the building at that site would create.

In his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in favor of uneasiness in the form of constructive tension “that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” King’s words in that letter stand today as a rebuke to those who think like the ADL:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ ‘Councilor’ or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Just substitute “Muslim” for “Negro” in that sentence. How poignant, how tragic that King’s words stand as a rebuke to America’s first black president.

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