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President Obama Defends Muslims’ Right to Build Mosque

September 11, 2010

Obama makes plea for tolerance on eve of 9/11 anniversary

By Sheldon Alberts, Washington Correspondent, Postmedia News September 11, 2010
Montreal Gazette,

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday staunchly defended the right of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, making an emotional appeal to Americans to show religious tolerance as the United States commemorates the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

“This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights; one of those inalienable rights is to practise their religion freely,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference.

“And what that means is that if you could build a church on a site, if you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site.”

Mr. Obama waded into the New York mosque controversy as he prepared for Saturday’s ceremonies honouring the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — and as his administration struggles to defuse international tensions caused by a Florida pastor’s earlier threat to mark the solemn anniversary by burning copies of the Qur’an.

Pastor Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., on Friday re-affirmed that he had put off his “International Burn a Koran Day” event.

But the once-obscure Christian preacher remained engaged in an increasingly bizarre effort to negotiate with the imam heading plans for a 13-storey mosque and Islamic community centre two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Mr. Jones claimed he had cancelled the Qur’an burning after being misled into believing Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf had agreed to move the mosque and to meet personally with him. At one point on Friday, he gave the New York imam a two-hour deadline to call him.

Imam Rauf issued a statement on Friday afternoon saying he was not planning to meet with Mr. Jones.

“I am prepared to consider meeting with anyone who is seriously committed to pursuing peace. We have no such meeting planned [with Mr. Jones] at this time,” the imam said in a statement.

“Our plans for the community centre have not changed.”

At his White House news conference, Mr. Obama did not say whether he supported or opposed construction of the New York mosque.

But he said ongoing efforts to have the project scrapped or moved risked alienating not only moderate Muslims around the world but millions of Muslim-Americans in the United States.

“They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbours. They’re our friends. They’re our co-workers. And, you know, when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?” Mr. Obama said.

“As someone who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise. But I also respect that people of different faiths can practise their religion . . . and they are still good people.”

Mr. Obama’s decision to mention his Christian faith was noteworthy — a Pew Center poll recently found 18% of Americans think their president is a Muslim.

Even though Mr. Jones has put his plans to burn the Qur’an on hold, Mr. Obama said publicity generated by the event had already put American soldiers in danger overseas.

On Friday, protests against the planned Qur’an burning turned violent in northeastern and western Afghanistan. Eight people were injured at a protest that drew several thousand people in northeastern Badakhshan province, according to a report from Agence France-Presse.

Asked about Mr. Jones at his Friday news conference, Mr. Obama said “my hope is that this individual prays on it and refrains from [burning the Qur’an].”

The U.S. administration took the extraordinary step on Thursday of having Defence Secretary Robert Gates phone Mr. Jones to warn him his actions may put U.S. soldiers overseas in danger.

He also dismissed suggestions that his administration’s direct intervention had elevated Mr. Jones to a stature he did not deserve.

“The idea that we would burn the sacred text of someone else’s religion is contrary to what this country stands for. It is contrary to what this nation was founded on,” Mr. Obama said.

“I’m also commander in chief, and we are seeing today riots in Kabul, riots in Afghanistan that threaten our young men and women in uniform . . . Although this may be one individual in Florida, part of my concern is to make sure that we don’t start having a whole bunch of folks all across the country think this is the way to get attention.”

Hinting at the media’s role in publicizing Mr. Jones’s church, Mr. Obama added: “I hardly think we are the ones who elevated this story.”

Mr. Obama’s efforts to calm tensions over the Qur’an-burning controversy have been complicated by the unpredictability of Mr. Jones, who has courted media coverage and says he is taking his cues from God.

The pastor’s estranged daughter, Emma Jones, told the German news outlet Spiegel Online, that she believed her father is mentally unstable.

“As a daughter, I see the good-natured core inside him. But I think he needs help,” Ms. Jones told the German outlet, according to Reuters. “I think he has gone mad.”

Mr. Obama was asked why, nine years after the 9/11 attacks, suspicion toward Muslims seems once again to be on the rise in the United States.

The president attributed the sentiment, in part, to the difficult economic times in the United States.

“I think that at a time when the country is anxious generally, and going through a tough time, then fears can surface, suspicions, divisions can surface in a society. So I think that plays a role in that.”

Mr. Obama said Americans should “reflect” on the country’s values of tolerance and liberty as they mark the 9/11 anniversary. He offered praise for how his predecessor, former president George W. Bush, handled the emotional period after al-Qaida attacked the U.S.

Mr. Bush was “crystal clear about the fact we are not at war with Islam, we are war with terrorists and murderers that had perverted Islam, had stolen its banner to carry out their outrageous acts,” Mr. Obama said.

“And I was so proud of the country rallying around that idea, that notion — that we are not going to be divided by religion. We are not going to be divided by ethnicity.”

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