Did Bloomberg inspire Obama’s speech about NYC Muslim cultural centre?

August 14, 2010

obama mosque 1There 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.

obama mosque 2After 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.”

obama mosque 3This 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.”

jeffersonObama 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.

— New York’s tabloid papers are divided over the project. The Daily News hailed Obama’s comments while the Post slammed Bloomberg as the “mosque nanny” after his speech.

— 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.?

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If you could concentrate them all in one place they could worship there.

George W. Bush gave us a strong nation. He didn’t bow to the enemies of America and neither did his daddy.

Now we have Obama giving Arizona to the Mexicans, stopping something as important as off-shore drilling, destroying the economy, threating to ruin the environment with off-shore wind farms, and icing the cake by guaranteeing the freedom of Muslims to worship… it makes no sense!

Posted by DonJuan59 | Report as abusive

Islam deceives many people.
There is no peaceful Islam.
It is a hate religion.
Absolutely no mosquery on the ground zero.
Slap on the face of Americans.
It will give a sense of victory for the Islamic Terrorists.
Wake up America?

Posted by jjjeong | Report as abusive

How could Obama and Bloomberg in good conscience side with the Muslims???? True we have freedom of religion, BUT they could have persuaded them to build else where, not so close to this sacre ground where over 3,000 Americans lost their lives for no good reason, but the hatred of those jealous of our freedom as Americans.

Posted by Hiker-48 | Report as abusive

The mosque is surely the work of moderate Muslims and moderate Muslims are not known to be terrorists like other Muslims so why not allow the moderates to build their mosque?

There should be one condition to the moderates and that is that they produce ONE HONEST TRANSLATION OF THE QURAN FOR THE WORLD TO SEE so that their brand of Islam does not continue to breed the terrorists.

Moderates should honour the Quran by excludung the false use of names such as “Jews” and “Christians” and “Jesus” and “Gospel” in translations of the Quran as they form a deception that misleads from the Path of Allah.



Posted by mythslayer | Report as abusive

August 16, 2010
President Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
Washington, DC
Re: Bishop Walter Dixon of Atlanta, GA Official Press Release Live Video Supporting President Barack Obama’s Opinion and Statement Endorsing Islam Center Near 9/11 Site.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuwGAo8Vn CQ
Dear President Obama:
Just a few words to let you know it is not always easy to provide your personal opinion on how you feel about different situations from one point or another. I want you to know I commend you on being the leader you are.
You can not satisfy all the people all the time. It was your belief during your campaign that you believe America can be a greater nation. Through your leadership America has hope and a brighter future we never had before. Through your leadership Mr. President America can see a light at the end of the tunnel. I want to thank you for that light.
America still has a long journey to travel. Continue to Stay focus Mr. President and when it is all said and done after your (8) years of being America President your legacy will have proven your vision, compassion, leadership and love for your country put America and Americans back to being the greatest nation on earth.
“I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground. 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 will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. In fact, Al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion, and that list includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.”
Bishop Dixon stated “America is too proud of a country to deprive innocent Americans who are law abiding citizens where or where not they can worship their religion. Come on America we have to many other issues that need to be resolve than to squabble over where Islam members will be building a temple. I believe the economy and employment for all who want to work is issues we need to resolve. This can only be accomplished by corporate America and Main Street working together.”
Bishop Walter Dixon
P.O. Box 832161
Stone Mountain, GA 30083

Posted by bishopwldixon | Report as abusive