President Obama’s original statement at the White House Ramadan Iftar on the evening of Friday, August 13, 2010 is not walked back by his statement on the tarmac. It is held back by the press’ inability to process and summarize complex thoughts to convey the general public. Note’s Greg Sargent (bold mine) (by way of The Urban Politico.)
To be clear, I agree entirely with Ben Smith and others who say that today’s quote was probably a political misstep. The media is mostly framing this story as: Did Obama “endorse” the project or didn’t he? That’s an overly simplistic framing, but you work with the media you have, not the one you want. Today’s quote was bound to be interpreted as a walkback in the face of intense pressure. What Obama should have said was this: “I’m not commenting on the wisdom of the project. Nor is it my place to do that. But now that they have decided to proceed, we must respect their right to build the center and welcome them in accordance with American ideals.”
That would have been more desirable, and in some ways more directly consistent with his brave stance yesterday. But even so, based on what he did say, I’m just not seeing a serious walkback or contradiction here.
Here is video of Obama’s original statement in the White House:
…and on the Tarmac in Florida on Saturday, August 14…
“In this country, we treat everybody equally in accordance with the law regardless of race, regardless of religion. I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country’s about and I think it’s very important that as difficult as some of these issues are we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”
To Imam Feisal: We write with an unshakable commitment to religious freedom, and to your right to exercise it in meaningful and concrete ways. We have great appreciation for the progressive and inclusive interpretation of Islam to which you speak. We have read with care your own words about the purpose of the Cordoba House. We take those words as our starting point for the issues we raise in this letter, as we appeal to your senses of decency, empathy and prudence—and to those of all Muslims of goodwill.
Your stated goal of interfaith and cross-cultural understanding is a good one—one that we all share and have devoted considerable energy to furthering. It may well be that this goal would be furthered still by the building and operation of Cordoba House. However, while we will continue to stand with you and your right to proceed with this project, we see no reason why it must necessarily be located so close to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.[…]
Our deeper concern is what effect Cordoba House would have on the families of 9/11 victims, survivors of and first responders to the attacks, New Yorkers in general, and all Americans. As you have seen in the public reaction to the Cordoba House, 9/11 remains a deep wound for Americans—especially those who experienced it directly in some way. They understandably see the area as sacred ground. Nearly all of them also reject the equation of Islam with terrorism and do not blame the attacks on Muslims generally or on the Muslim faith. But many believe that Ground Zero should be reserved for memorials to the event itself and to its victims. They do not understand why of all possible locations in the city, Cordoba House must be sited so near to there.
Many New Yorkers and Americans will conclude that the radical interpretation of Cordoba House’s purpose is correct. That belief will harm what you have articulated to be Cordoba House’s core mission. Rather than furthering cross-cultural and interfaith understanding, a Cordoba House located near Ground Zero would undermine them. Rather that serving as a bridge between Muslim and non-Muslim peoples, it would function as a divide. Your expressed hopes for the center not only would never be realized, they would be contradicted from the start. Insisting on this particular site on Park Place can only reinforce this counterproductive dynamic.
Another site—not just away from Ground Zero but also closer to residential neighborhoods—would serve your institution and the city better. Worshipers would be closer and the communities that need help would also benefit from proximity. We stand ready to help you select and secure another site, to overcome regulatory hurdles, and to make up for any lost time.
Senor and King may have general public opinion on their side and they may indeed be proven correct by erection of Cordoba House near Ground Zero. People may be offended when the center is built. A Cordoba House near ground zero may fail to foster more tolerance between Muslims and the general public. All that may occur in spite of the fact that Muslims died on 9/11 and in spite of the fact that there are two Mosques, (one pre-dating the construction of the World Trade Center and both pre-dating either WTC attack), mere blocks away from ground zero, and in spite of the fact that Muslim soldiers are fighting under our flag in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Obama’s argument is that it is the right of any American to express their self religiously in accordance with the law.On both Friday and Saturday, Obama said he believed in the right of Imam Feisal’s group to build the Cordoba House. It is the right of any American to seek any of the positives Imam Feisal sees as resulting from construction of Cordoba House. It is the right of any American to risk all of the negatives that Senor and King see as the likely response to a Cordoba House cultural center near Ground Zero.
The neo-cons want to argue that there is a lack of wisdom, sensitivity and common sense behind the Cordoba house initiative because with leading poll questions and cable news appearances they can sway public opinion. Obama is asserting that the matter is settled by First Amendment rights and first amendment rights only. He can’t win an argument against people’s personal feelings about Islam and he is right to explicitly stress that this a matter of constitutional rights. I feel he’s choosing not to argue with fools.