As I previously suggested, Friday’s Iftar dinner at the White House provided a unique opportunity for Obama to address the debate over the proposed construction of a Mosque in lower Manhattan, two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. He did just that. Though the president tiptoed around the issue in his written statement marking the beginning of Ramadan earlier this week, Obama’s remarks Friday night were an explicit and unequivocal defense of Cordoba House as an appropriate expression of faith. His remarks are worth reading in full (as prepared for delivery, emphasis mine):
Good evening. Welcome to the White House. To you, to Muslim Americans across our country, and to more than one billion Muslims around the world, I extend my best wishes on this holy month. Ramadan Kareem. I want to welcome members of the diplomatic corps; members of my administration; and Members of Congress, including Rush Holt, John Conyers, and Andre Carson, who is one of two Muslim American Members of Congress, along with Keith Ellison.
Here at the White House, we have a tradition of hosting iftars that goes back several years, just as we host Christmas parties, seders, and Diwali celebrations. These events celebrate the role of faith in the lives of the American people. They remind us of the basic truth that we are all children of God, and we all draw strength and a sense of purpose from our beliefs.
These events are also an affirmation of who we are as Americans. Our Founders understood that the best way to honor the place of faith in the lives of our people was to protect their freedom to practice religion. In the Virginia Act for Establishing Religion Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” The First Amendment of our Constitution established the freedom of religion as the law of the land. And that right has been upheld ever since.
Indeed, over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose – including the right to believe in no religion at all. And it is a testament to the wisdom of our Founders that America remains deeply religious – a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in contrast to the religious conflict that persists around the globe.
That is not to say that religion is without controversy. 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 unshakeable. 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.
We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who have led our response to that attack – from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today. And let us always remember who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam – it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion – and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.
That is who we are fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms – it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race or religion; wealth or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect to those who are different from us – a way of life that stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.
In my inaugural address, I said that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. That diversity can bring difficult debates. Indeed, past eras have seen controversies about the construction of synagogues or Catholic churches. But time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it. So it must be – and will be – today.
Tonight, we are reminded that Ramadan is a celebration of a faith known for great diversity. And Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America. The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan—making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.
Like so many other immigrants, generations of Muslims came here to forge their future. They became farmers and merchants, worked in mills and factories, and helped lay the railroads. They helped build America. They founded the first Islamic center in New York City in the 1890s. They built America’s first mosque on the prairie of North Dakota. And perhaps the oldest surviving mosque in America—still in use today—is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Today, our nation is strengthened by millions of Muslim Americans. They excel in every walk of life. Muslim American communities—including mosques in all fifty states—also serve their neighbors. Muslim Americans protect our communities as police, firefighters and first responders. Muslim American clerics have spoken out against terror and extremism, reaffirming that Islam teaches that one must save human life, not take it. And Muslim Americans serve with honor in our military. At next week’s iftar at the Pentagon, tribute will be paid to three soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq and now rest among the heroes of Arlington National Cemetery.
These Muslim Americans died for the security that we depend upon, and the freedoms that we cherish. They are part of an unbroken line of Americans that stretches back to our Founding; Americans of all faiths who have served and sacrificed to extend the promise of America to new generations, and to ensure that what is exceptional about America is protected – our commitment to stay true to our core values, and our ability to perfect our union.
For in the end, we remain “one nation, under God, indivisible.” And we can only achieve “liberty and justice for all” if we live by that one rule at the heart of every religion, including Islam—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Thank you all for being here, and I wish you a blessed Ramadan. And with that, let’s eat.
A few scattered thoughts: The timing of the speech, 8:30 pm on a Friday night in August, is about as low key as one can get. The dinner may well have been on the calendar long before Obama decided to weigh in on the issue, but the timing basically minimizes ricochet in the echo chamber.
Obama actually acknowledged many critics of Cordoba House in his use of the phrase “hallowed ground” to describe Ground Zero. The words are straight out of Charles Krauthammer’s column today in the Washington Post.
The issue seemed personal to the president. He began his most direct defense of the project with “as a citizen, and as President.” And, based on the scant polling that’s been done, it’s hardly something his political advisers want him talking about on a whim.
And somewhat tangentially, the entire episode has reminded me of Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama on “Meet the Press.” In the interview Powell decried what he saw as anti-Islamic rhetoric in his own party and spoke at some length of Muslims’ contributions to America. The relevant portion starts at about 4:30 below: