Feisal Abdul Rauf has every legal right to build his mosque. If he owns the land, he can build a mosque on it, and the government has no right to interfere. The effort to block the project by making it a historical landmark was wrong-headed.
In fact, it’s nearly always wrong to block construction by creating landmarks. That sort of landmark preservation comes about when people want to preserve a site but don’t want to pay to do so. If people want to preserve a landmark, they should buy it and preserve it. If preserving the landmark is not worth the price, then the developer’s use for the land is more productive.
However, Americans have every reason to be offended by the project. The site is not just near Ground Zero, it is arguably part of Ground Zero: it became available only because the old Burlington Coat Factory building was hit by part of a hijacked plane and damaged beyond repair. The project’s own proponents have said that the location’s connection to 9/11 is one reason it was selected. To use the site to celebrate the same religion that motivated the terrorists that attacked it is a grotesque irony. If Rauf were really interested in interfaith dialogue, as he claims, he would avoid such a provocation. With all the locations he could build a mosque, why insist on one that offends so many?
The project becomes all the more offensive when you look at who Feisal Abdul Rauf is: Rauf is an apologist for Hamas. He blames United States policy for the attacks. And, he published a book with a revealing title: A Call to Prayer from the World Trade Center Rubble: Islamic Dawa in the Heart of America Post-9/11. An edition of the book was published in America (under a different title) with funding from Muslim Brotherhood front groups. Given who Rauf is, it seems all but certain that the project is a deliberate provocation.
So while the government has no place interfering with the project, society is right to be outraged and to bring social pressure to bear. What’s more, the public seems to understand the difference. According to a new poll, about two-thirds of New Yorkers agree with each sentiment.
Which brings us to President Obama. On Friday, Obama decided to wade into the controversy. He could have simply said what most Americans seem to believe: the mosque is a bad idea, but Rauf still has the right to build it. However, for some reason, Obama couldn’t bring himself to do that. (Transcript here.) Instead, he touched only on Rauf’s right to build his mosque, and gave no hint of any distaste for the project.
Everyone took his meaning; he was for the project. For instance, the New York Times story opened:
Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site
President Obama delivered a strong defense last night of a proposed Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero in New York. . . After weeks of avoiding the high-profile battle over the center — his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said last week that the president did not want to “get involved in local decision-making” — Obama stepped squarely into the thorny debate, leaving little doubt about how he feels.
But Obama’s clarity didn’t last long. Sensing the fury of the public and of vulnerable Democrats, he quickly moved to obfuscate his position. The next day, he announced:
I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.
ASIDE: New York Times has duly airbrushed its story in light of Obama’s declarification, which is why you won’t see the final phrase there any more. You can see it in the Winston-Salem Journal’s version of the story. You can also see it, for now, in Google’s cache, which I’ve screenshotted for when it changes:
What did Obama really mean to say? Your guess is as good as mine, but I don’t think Obama was using his remarks just to agree with the conventional opinion. If he intended to disagree with conventional opinion, there are only three possibilities: (1) he approves of the mosque, as was originally reported by his supporters, (2) he thinks erroneously that Americans want the government to block the mosque, or (3) both. A fourth possibility, suggested by Byron York, is that Obama was fumbling an attempt at Bill Clinton’s rhetorical trick of making remarks that are simultaneously interpreted differently by different groups. None of those possibilities reflect well on him.
POST-POSTSCRIPT: While all this is going on, Feisal Abdul Rauf is on a Middle East tour, paid for by the US State Department.