Leadership Failure: The Mosque Mess Part I

In the past ten days or so, President Obama sucked up a lot of airtime droning on about constitutional rights and the mosque near Ground Zero. But, his lectures amount to a zero because whether constitutional rights apply depends, not on Obama’s view, but on judicial review. He knows as well as anyone in America that freedom of religion, like other constitutional rights, is not absolute. If competing interests are strong enough, they can prevail.

So why is he making premature constitutional pronouncements? Evidently, trying to bluster an end to the debate about the mosque in a show of support for the Muslim community. What he should have done was encourage a frank discussion of the bottom line issues between the opposing sides. But, he punted and a whirlwind of political damage has been cutting a wide swath ever since.

One of Obama’s big agenda items is improving relations between the U.S. and the Muslim World. From his inaugural address, to his speech in Cairo, to his political appointments and beyond, he’s been a prodigious promoter of Islam. And, that’s not necessarily bad. Other things being equal, getting along is obviously a lot better than not. But, Obama’s single-minded purpose blinds him to virtually everything else, causing him to miss the mark too often. In this case, pulling a false trigger to force people to cozy up was bound to blow up instead. Right now, we’re suffering the fallout that political leadership may have prevented.

According to Daisy Khan, one of the two main initiators of the Islam Center project, its purpose is to celebrate diversity and detente. Since 2005, she’s spoken of it as a place of community fellowship for Muslims, and, as importantly, an overture to American-Muslim harmony. Through interfaith programs and other outreach efforts, she believed the Center would help repair the breach created by the 911 attacks. Driving a constitutional stake in the ground was not one of her talking points.

It’s not surprising. Two Mosques have existed in lower Manhattan for decades, located four and twelve blocks, respectively, from Ground Zero. Non-muslims do not protest the presence of these houses of worship. True, they are low-key, but the Islam Center won’t look like a mosque either. A thirteen-story glass and chrome structure, it will house a large auditorium, theater, performing arts center, sports center, bookstore, culinary school, art studio, food court, 911 memorial and the mosque.

How did a brawl of disagreement breakout over this idyllic purpose? In an article published before Obama opened his mouth, the New York Times listed several bridge-building missteps taken by the Center’s backers. They boil down to one thing: a failure to recognize the possibility that the Center could be viewed as a monument to the ideology that felled the twin towers.

There are several major dividing points that the article failed to discuss. Although now called Park51, the original name for the Center was Cordoba House. The effort to build it is called the Cordoba Initiative. For Muslims, Cordoba refers to Cordoba, Spain, the Muslim capital during centuries of political and military domination over that part of Western Europe. Then there’s the backers’ refusal to rule out terrorist sources of funding for the Center. Chief among them is the Iranian government, which, according to our State Department, is the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism.

Lastly, Daisy’s husband and the Center’s co-founder, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has an unfortunate habit of making very explosive, anti-American allegations. Take his September 2001 60 minutes interview and his 2005 Australian interview. He accused the U.S. of being an accessory to the 911 crimes, directly responsible for bin Laden and worse than Al Qaeda. Now days, Feisal says his 60 Minutes statements were “edited out of context”. But, for the past nine years, he’s gotten a lot of favorable mileage out of them in the Muslim World.

How this will ultimately play out is anyone’s guess. Following Obama’s initial religious freedom speech, the mosque builders dug in their heels and refuse to budge. Talk of rapprochement has been replaced by a mute determination to claim constitutional rights that were never the issue. Obama botched an opportunity to engage both sides in a dialog that may have resulted in an amicable resolution. Instead, he poured gasoline on a smoldering flame, exploding it into a white-hot election year issue. Where is the cool head of effective leadership?

See you in the mirror.