Tonight, President Obama hosted an iftaar dinner at the White House — a feast marking the culmination of a day of fasting for practicing Muslims during the current Islamic calendar month of Ramadan. At remarks delivered at the dinner, Obama spoke out on the controversy surrounding the construction of a new Islamic center near the Ground Zero site, firmly siding in favor of the project:
Obama: Let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. 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. 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. The writ of our Founders must endure.
From the moment he entered office, Obama has made a commitment to engaging in a more positive relationship with the Muslim world. During his inaugural address, Obama said, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” And later, in a speech in Cairo, Egypt, Obama added, “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” But the right-wing antics against the construction of mosques, the disturbing instances of hate crimes against Muslims, and the rising tide of Islamophobia has served to frustrate the administration’s commitment to engage with the Muslim world.
So, Obama’s strenuous defense of the “Ground Zero mosque” tonight is significant not just in bolstering the credibility of his message to the Muslim world, but it also engages him directly in the political fight against far right extremists here at home who wish to erode the American values at stake in the fight over the mosque. Obama emphasized tonight that “our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect to those who are different from us” is an important marker of the distinction between us and the “nihilism” of terrorists. In other words, using language that perhaps Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and their fellow xenophobic cynics might be more comfortable with — the question is simple: Are you with us or against us?
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Update: Rep. Peter King (R-NY), an ardent opponent of the mosque, issued a statement essentially arguing that bigotry should respected and tolerated. “President Obama is wrong,” King said. “It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero. While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much.”
Update: New York’s Conservative Party is planning to air TV ads to ask a private company not to lease its building for the construction of the Islamic center.
Update: The leaders behind the Islamic center project were excited to hear Obama’s remarks. “We are so blessed to be Americans! This is the greatest country in the world,” Sharif El-Gamal, the project’s developer, said in an email to the New York Daily News.
Update: Glenn Greenwald heralds the speech as “one of the most impressive and commendable things Obama has done since being inaugurated.”