U.S. President Barack Obama has ignited a political controversy with his comments about the rights of American Muslims to build an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, the site of the 2001 terror attacks on New York City. The administration had claimed the issue was local, until the President made his remarks at the annual White House Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan.
President Obama is crisscrossing the nation, speaking about the economy, campaigning for Democrats ahead of November's congressional elections. Political experts say he needs the diversion to steer public attention away from his recent comments.
What Obama said
On August 13, the President spoke about the proposal to build a mosque two blocks from the site of the September 11 terror attacks.
"Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," President Obama said. "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan."
And, that set off a political firestorm.
A CNN poll finds that nearly 70 percent of Americans oppose the mosque, even though the project was approved by New York City authorities.
Republicans have criticized President Obama as disconnected from Americans.
And the Senate's top Democrat Harry Reid, in a close campaign for re-election, spoke out against it.
"It's very obvious that the mosque should be built someplace else," Reid said.
At the heart of the matter is the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. But Americans have become sensitive when that issue intersects with the tragedy of September 11.
John Farina wrote a book of spiritual reflections a month after the bombings. He says the President's intent on Friday was to highlight religious freedom.
"We really believe in our ideals, even when they are inconvenient. and who could object to that? That's a wonderful message. That's not the way, at least, Americans are going to hear it," Farina said.
On Tuesday, a group of interfaith leaders spoke out about the controversy.
"Religious freedom exists in part to protect the rights of the minority from the whim of the majority," noted Arielle Gingold, reading a pre-released statement on behalf of Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of the Interfaith Alliance. "In fact it would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that if the founding fathers have relied on polling data, the first amendment might not exist at all."
Steven Taylor who teaches government at American University in Washington DC, predicts that President Obama's comments will be used against Democrats in campaign commercials.
"A good segment of the public doesn't make the distinction between moderate Islam/ al-Qaida, or those who don't belong to al-Qaida," noted Taylor. "They don't see it that way. All they see is that Muslims bombed the world trade center. Muslims killed three thousand people and the president is supporting the rights of these Muslims to do that."
Taylor says Mr. Obama might have been reaching for a better relationship with Muslims in other countries. But, it might come at the expense of Americans who would vote for him.