For a brief few hours, US President Barack Obama stood on the right side of the startling national debate in America over private plans to build a mosque near the site of the World Trade Centre in New York.
After weeks of declining to enter the fray over what is ostensibly a local issue (authorities in New York have already approved plans for the mosque), Mr Obama appeared to speak out forcefully in favour of the mosque at an iftar dinner on Friday: “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. 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.” Those were marvellous words, a clear expression of the only correct moral, legal and constitutional position that can be taken on the issue of the New York mosque-cum-community centre.
Within hours, however, in the face of ferocious Republican criticism, Mr Obama appears to have backtracked. On Saturday, the American president told reporters: “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.” So what appears to have been a clarion defence of the New York mosque has been watered down to a professorial dilation on the rights Americans enjoy. Sadly, America’s politicians, especially Republicans, appear to have let down their country and all that it is supposed to stand for.
The 9/11 attacks were executed by Al Qaeda, not Muslims at large. That Al Qaeda espouses a distorted view of Islam has nothing to do with ordinary, law-abiding Muslims practising their religion. These are obvious facts. Unfortunately, some American politicians appear to have calculated that Islamophobia is a potent vote-getter. But that is as dangerous as it is self-defeating. Al Qaeda and militant Islamists could probably not dream of a better propaganda opportunity: see, they will say, America really is against Islam. The furore over the mosque isn’t winning hearts and minds for America, it is poisoning them.
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