Here is what President Obama said Friday night at the White House iftar dinner in front of a room full of Muslims regarding the Ground Zero Megamosque (GZM):
Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities – particularly in New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.
But 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 unshakable. 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.
Obama carefully read his speech, including this statement. When he got to this passage, he spoke slowly, with some vehemence and condescension. Regarding these remarks, as the late, great William Buckley used to say, a few observations.
1. Obama’s tone was not one calculated to persuade. He both hectored and belittled those who oppose the GZM. If you respectfully beg to differ with Obama, it is hard to like the persona Obama had on display Friday night.
2. Obama supported the GZM in his usual style, in which his position is juxtaposed with a straw man of his choosing. It is an unappealing rhetorical habit that is made even more unappealing when applied to an issue on which people of good faith obviously differ with him.
3. Obama’s statement begs the question posed by the GZM. No one has questioned the right of Muslims to practice their religion the same as anyone else in this country. Rather, those opposed to the GZM have asked the proponents, among other things, to recognize and give way to the feelings of ordinary Americans that a mosque does not belong at Ground Zero.
4. Obama’s remarks alluded to the right of private property involved in the construction of the proposed GZM. We haven’t previously heard much about the right of private property from Obama.
5. Obama’s remarks emphasized the First Amendment rights of Muslims in America. Gone was the living Constitution and the vaunted “empathy” that may impel right (left) thinking judges to depart from a fixed reading of constitutional rights. Whatever empathy Obama expressed for the opponents of the GZM, it was an empathy that had to give way in recognition of the First Amendment right of free exercise. Now if Obama would just take the same approach to the First Amendment right of free speech at issue in Citizens United, for example, he might want to issue an apology to the Supreme Court.
6. It’s good for Muslims to build the GZM in New York, but not for Jews to build apartments in Jerusalem. Go figure.
7. In the remarks prefacing his formal speech, Obama recognized Rep. Andre Carson in the audience, who (along with Rep. Keith Ellison, whom he also called out) is one of the two Muslims in Congress. We are still awaiting the the enterprising journalist who can ferret out the branch of Islam that comports with the tenets of the Democratic Party on the equality of women, abortion, gay rights and all the rest.
8. By Saturday, in the face of the response his remarks engendered, Obama was backing off from his support for the GZM. He availed himself of the option of emphasizing the straw man he had addressed. We were to believe that he was only addressing the issue in the abstract. Both Friday’s statement and Saturday’s backtracking were remarkably unpersuasive.
9. Obama could have played a constructive role in resolving the deeply divisive issues raised by the GZM. Instead he chose to put on display his belief in his superior nature.
10. With great reliability Obama stands athwart the feelings of ordinary Americans. Indeed, he is a much more ardent defender of the faith of Musims than he is of the United States, of its history or of its people. Although Obama framed his GZM remarks as a citizen and President of the United States, he seems to think of himself less as a citizen of the United States than as a citizen of the world and less as president than as philosopher king.
In the 2008 campaign Obama presented himself as a healing if not a redemptive figure. For reasons that are almost completely understandable, many voters chose to believe in Obama’s self-presentation. Belief in Obama’s persona conflicted with voluminous evidence to the contrary that was there for anyone with eyes to see.
These voters who bought Obama nevertheless quickly saw through Obama’s persona after the election. They now believe they were sold a bill of goods, and they are of course right. Obama’s iftar remarks suggest that Obama has no hesitation at all in reminding voters how he pulled one over on them.