Did Bloomberg inspire Obama’s speech about NYC Muslim cultural centre?
There was an interesting echo at the White House when President Barack Obama came out in favour of the proposed Cordoba House Muslim cultural centre near the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York (see our news report here). Controversy about the project, which opponents call the “Ground Zero mosque,” has been swirling in New York for weeks and went national recently when Republicans Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich joined the critics’ campaign. But until the annual Iftar dinner he hosted on Friday evening, the president had kept out of what his spokesman called “a matter for New York City and the local community to decide.”
(Photo: President Obama addresses White House Iftar meal, 13 August 2010/Jason Reed)
Reading his comments, it looks like Obama not only let NYC authorities decide the issue — favourably for the project, as it turned out, as both the local community board and the landmarks commission voted overwhelmingly to let it go ahead. He may also have taken pointers for his speech from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has stood solidly behind the project despite all the emotion it has stirred up.
After the Landmarks Preservation Commission cleared the last administrative hurdle to the plan — rejecting the opponents’ bid to protect the 1857 building standing on the proposed Cordoba House site from being torn down — Bloomberg delivered a forceful speech on August 3 defending two long-standing American traditions.
(Photo: Current building on the Cordoba House site in lower Manhattan, 3 August 2010/Mike Segar)
The first and most obvious one was freedom of religion: “Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish… I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime – as important a test – and it is critically important that we get it right.”
Less highlighted but equally important was respect for private property: “The simple fact is this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship. The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right… lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question – should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”
Obama hit all these themes in the key passage of his speech: “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. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
This is not to say that Obama would not have backed this project if Bloomberg had not spoken out so eloquently. His support is consistent with his views on constitutional rights, religious freedom, diversity and outreach to Muslims. It also made sense to save this speech for the Iftar dinner, when his stand could play more prominently than it might if it were simply proclaimed in a statement on the White House website.
(Photo: Protester at a meeting of the New York City Landmarks Commission, 3 August 2010/Mike Segar)
But politics is as much — if not more — about style as about substance. Obama made his name as a great orator, while the mayor is not known as an especially gifted speaker. But Bloomberg’s speech (text here) was as eloquent and forceful a defence of religious freedom and tolerance as has been heard from a U.S. politician in a while. And it was an example of political leadership based on principles rather than polls, something also not as frequent as it might be. It sounded like the kind of speech that the orator-in-chief might have liked to deliver.The Wall Street Journal‘s Metropolis blog called Bloomberg’s speech “the mayor’s Obama-like moment in the spotlight.”
Obama didn’t copy Bloomberg. His speech was structured differently and had several other aspects, including the interesting fact that Thomas Jefferson hosted an Iftar dinner for the Tunisian ambassador more than 200 years ago. But it hit the key points that Bloomberg had laid down in his speech 10 days earlier. No wonder the mayor promptly responded to the echo from the White House by saying: “I applaud President Obama’s clarion defense of the freedom of religion.”
(Image: Thomas Jefferson, first Iftar host in the White House/portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1805)
Postscript: A few other points on the Cordoba House project:
— The New York Times had an interesting article on the background to Bloomberg’s speech: Mayor’s Stance on Muslim Center Has Deep Roots.
— The NYT‘s City Room blog recounted the Muslim side of the path to the controversy: Before the Mosque Debate, Some Early Missteps.
— The Obama administration tipped its hand on this issue last Tuesday when State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley told journalists that State had posted Bloomberg’s speech in English, Arabic, Farsi, French, Russian and Spanish on its America.gov website that presents the U. S. to overseas readers. Crowley also confirmed reports that the Cordoba House project’s initiator, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf would soon travel to Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on a U.S. government-sponsored trip “to discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance.”
That will be Rauf’s third trip under this programme, the first being in 2007 and the second earlier this year. “We have a long-term relationship with him,” Crowley said. “His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States. And our discussions with him about taking this trip preceded the current debate in New York over the center.”
What do you think about this controversy and what it says about religious freedom in the U.S.?