What started as a local zoning debate about an Islamic center near Ground Zero, and then morphed into a fight over religious expression, has now turned into an election-year political brawl.
Caught in the middle of the rancorous partisan fight are American Muslims, whose own voices have been drowned out by politicians on both the left and the right.
“In a fundamental sense, this is not a conversation about Muslims,” said Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This is a conversation in which the Muslims are being used as the football with which to play the game of competing visions of America.”
President Obama waded into the debate on Aug. 13 when he hailed America’s “unshakeable” commitment to religious freedom during a White House dinner to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said. “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.”
Perhaps sensing the political storm clouds that were gathering, Obama said Saturday that he would not “comment on the wisdom” of whether to build near Ground Zero, which the night before he had called “hallowed ground.”
Republicans, however, pounced. Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican responsible for adding GOP Senate seats in the November elections, said Obama “seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America” and called his remarks “unwise.” The top Republican in the House, Minority Leader John Boehner, called them “deeply troubling.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat whose district includes the site of the proposed Cordoba House in lower Manhattan, fired back on CNN's “State of the Union.”
“It is only insensitive if you regard Islam as the culprit as opposed to al-Qaida as the culprit,” Nadler said Sunday. “We were not attacked by all Muslims.”
GOP luminaries like former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have already promised to make the issue one for the voting booths in November, with Gingrich telling The New York Times that Obama was “pandering to radical Islam.”
According to a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 54 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans oppose the New York mosque project. The Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody predicted the issue will have legs in 2010 and beyond.
“This situation all by itself has the potential to make President Obama a one-term president,” he wrote Monday (Aug. 16) on his “Brody File” blog. “This latest mosque move may be the fatal blow.”
Shahed Amanullah, founder of altmuslim.com, a popular Muslim website, agreed that the fight could influence some voters this fall — “people are still going to be drunk on this issue,” he said — but probably not beyond that.
“We’re definitely far enough from 2012 where the dust will have settled,” Amanullah predicted.
Lost in the debate, Amanullah said, is the interfaith bridge-building that the Cordoba House once hoped to foster, in part because of anti-Muslim vitriol that he said is worse than immediately after 9/11.
“The people that are being ostracized, I think, right now are the people that are in the middle, who feel that Muslims belong in America but have misgivings (about the center),” he said. “Those people are ... caught in the crossfire because the opposition is being led by people who, in my personal opinion, really don’t believe that Muslims belong in America.”
Also forgotten, said UNC’s Safi, is the fact that the proposed building near Ground Zero is not just a mosque, but a community center that would include a swimming pool and a wedding hall in addition to a place for prayer.
“It’s as American as megachurches,” he said. “It’s as American as Jewish community centers.”
Melissa Rogers, an expert on church-state relations who has praised New York officials for supporting “a linchpin of the American tradition of religious liberty,” said the overall debate could send the wrong message to Muslims, both at home and abroad.
A planned protest at a Florida church to burn copies of the Quran on the 9/11 anniversary can only make things worse, she said.
“I do think that there’s a real danger that Muslims receive the message that they are second-class citizens and that their rights have an asterisk beside them, if you will,” said Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs.
Rogers hopes grass-roots Americans, including religious leaders, can help lead the discussion above the political fray.
“Americans have an important role in this debate,” she said. “It goes to our core values and we should talk about it and we should definitely try to bring more light than heat to the issue, no matter what the politicians are doing.”