The mosque at Ground Zero
It seemed like one of those news stories that would come and go quickly — but the media and the politicians aren't letting it die.
Two weeks ago, the city of New York agreed to let a private organization build a $100 million mosque and Islamic community center in Manhattan. This in itself is nothing unusual. People from 190 countries live in the city, and opportunities to worship are available for any religion you can name.
What is unusual is that the 13-story mosque is to be built two blocks north of where the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001. Immediately, critics spoke up. It would be extremely disrespectful, they say, to build the mosque there, since the 9/11 terrorists were Muslims. About two thirds of Americans are believed to be against the idea.
Because the mosque is to be built by a private organization on private property, these opinions don't matter. Neither does that of Barack Obama, who offered his own at a White House ceremony last Friday marking the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said. "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 unshakable."
The media shortened this to "Obama says mosque should be built," forcing the president to clarify what he had meant. The constitution defends freedom of religion, he said, but "I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there."
One might expect the usual critics to step up to make Obama look like a fool, and some, including Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, did. But surprisingly, a number of prominent Republicans say they agree with him. Religious freedom: yes, please; bad taste: a separate issue.
Anyone with an opinion is weighing in — last week on Anderson Cooper's show on CNN, this week on Bill O'Reilly's on Fox. One of O'Reilly's panel guests even accused Obama of keeping the story in the news so that voters wouldn't think about the state of the economy.
The organization that owns the building site says its plans will go ahead.
Race and religion continue to divide America more than they have for decades, and 9/11 is a wound that refuses to heal. Visibly so: the World Trade Center site is still a hole in the ground.
New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said that 9/11 was precisely the reason why the mosque should be built.
"Part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance," the mayor said. "It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11. ... 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."