President Obama catches flak for approving of Muslims praying near Ground Zero

August 16, 2010
By tomsander

Young Muslim Girls – Flickr photo by Ron Aldaman

On Friday, President Obama unleashed an unintentional firestorm. At a Ramadan Dinner (a practice started by President George W. Bush post 9-11 to show that America’s disagreements are with terrorists, not Muslims), Obama gave voice to values widely held by most Americans: that everyone has a right to practice religion in this country.

Obama applied this reasoning to support New York City officials who had approved a Muslim community center located on private ground, 2 blocks from 9-11’s Ground Zero, but not visible from the site.  Obama said that Muslim’s religious freedom 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.”  But conservatives have preyed on his comments.  The firestorm makes evident the primordial soup in which Americans’ respect for religious freedom, their patriotism and nationalistic imagery, and their fear of the unknown, all co-exist.

The Washington Post notes that public approval or disapproval of the project hinges strongly on what you call it.

For our book, American Grace, we didn’t ask about siting a mosque near Ground Zero, but did survey Americans about their attitudes toward different religions and found that Americans fear more exotic, lesser known, religions far more than the more traditional Catholicism, Christianity or Judaism.  Americans have the strongest dislike of Mormons (a form of Christianity, although some evangelicals deny this), Muslims and Buddhists (a pacifistic and non-proselytizing religion).

Given the strong negative attitudes towards Buddhists and the fact that no one could object to a Buddhist temple in their community on grounds of national security, we polled Americans about their attitudes both towards having a Christian church sited in one’s community, and conversely having a Buddhist temple in their neighborhood.

Three quarters of Americans (76 percent) voice no objection to the construction of a large Buddhist temple in their neighborhood, although support is tepid since only 15% actually welcome the Buddhist temple. Moreover, one in five Americans has no problem with a large Christian church but would object to a Buddhist temple.  [In contrast with attitudes towards Buddhist temples, 92% of Americans said they would permit a large Christian church in their neighborhood and 37% would explicitly welcome it.]

We explore the interesting landscape of American religious tolerance in Chapter 14 (“A House Divided?”) of American Grace (due out in October).

And read Hendrik Hertzberg’s New Yorker Column “Zero Grounds” pointing out some of the key facts of the 9-11 “Ground Zero mosque” and how opposition to the mosque ironically is higher further away from Manhattan than among Manhattanites themselves.

The Washington Post has a story on staunch opposition to a Muslim mosque nowhere near Ground Zero (in Tennessee).  And Russell Simmons in a 8/27/10 WSJ Op-Ed (A Challenge for WTC Mosque Opponents”) claims that “You shall know them [opponents of the mosque] by their fruits” and observes that if opposition is based on the mosque’s location, how does one explain opposition to mosque-building in Tennessee or California or Wisconsin?


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One Response to President Obama catches flak for approving of Muslims praying near Ground Zero

  1. ParkerC on August 19, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Good article and well written. I would also like to credit you for mentioning that the Ramadan Dinner was founded by George Bush. Most mainstream media overlook this.

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