President Obama came down squarely tonight on the side of those who want to build an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site, saying that “our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.” Obama said this includes the right to build religious centers anywhere, as long as it is done in accord with local ordinances.
The White House had just days ago described the issue as a local matter for New Yorkers, suggesting it would stay out of it.
Below are the relevant paragraphs from Obama’s remarks at this evening’s annual White House Iftar dinner in the State Dining Room. The full text is here
Now, that’s not to say that religion is without controversy. Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities -– particularly 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. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And 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 everyone else in this country. (Applause.) 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. 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 that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who led the 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 also remember who we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for. Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam -– it’s a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders -– they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and 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.
So that’s who we’re 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, or wealth, or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us –- and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, 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 every culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And that diversity can bring difficult debates. This is not unique to our time. 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, and stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it. So it must be -– and will be -– today.
And here’s a little color from the pool report by the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman.
The speech, read from paper, not a teleprompter, hewed closely to the text with one flourish. He spoke of an American “way of life” from the text, then added, “that quintessential American creed,” picking up “…that stands in stark contrast to the nihilism…”
The crowd was attentive and respectful. Only twice did they interrupt with applause, after he declared “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” and after his story of Jefferson hosting the first Iftar for the ambassador from Tunisia.
When he finished, several guests surged forward to shake his hand while your pool was hastily ushered to the door.