by Clarence Page

Now that President Barack Obama has inserted himself into the trumped-up, in my view, controversy over a proposed mosque and community center near Ground Zero, he needs to perform what for him is an unnatural act: follow the example of his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Yes, despite his other problems, Bush's finest hours in my view came during the angry and fearful days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as he and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft rallied the country to a "war against terrorism, not against Arabs or Muslims."

At a time when percolating waters of ethnic xenophobia raged, it was reassuring to hear both men call for national solidarity with law-abiding Muslims against those who, in Bush's words, were trying to "hijack" their religion.

In that spirit, I was similarly relieved in this xenophobia-infested midterm election year to hear President Obama declare during a White House dinner with Muslim leaders to honor Ramadan that the "right" of Muslims to practice their religion as everyone else in this country "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," Obama said. "And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."

Unfortunately, the president shook up his own message the next day with this disclaimer in response to a reporter's question: "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding."

Yikes. He was defending the "right" to build the Islamic center but going squishy on the "wisdom" of it? Suddenly, as "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart quipped, Obama's campaign slogan had become: "Yes, We Can! -- But Should We?"

If the president had any reservations about the wisdom of the proposed mosque and community center's location, he would have been better off saying so in his initial statement. After all, New York's local mosque issue centers not on rights, but on location.

You could hear that in Sarah Palin's series of Twitter posts that added a new word to the English language. She called on "peaceful Muslims" to "refudiate" the "UNNECESSARY provocation" of the proposed location near the former World Trade Center "in (the) interest of healing." But how healing is it to say the Christian churches even closer to Ground Zero -- plus a nearby 40-year-old prayer room called Masjid Manhattan that's been open since before the World Trade Center was built -- are acceptable but a new mosque for peaceful Muslims is not?

We're not against mosques, say the opponents, but ... not there! But if not there, I ask, where? Four blocks? Six blocks? New Jersey? Even Quebec would be too close for some people.

Having been to Ground Zero, I can't help but wonder what all of the location fuss is about. You can't even see the site of the proposed mosque from the former World Trade Center site. Politicians, reporters and pundits who refer to the proposed site "two blocks from Ground Zero" should talk more about all of the skyscrapers that block the view. If you don't want to see the mosque from Ground Zero, you won't have to.

Yet, even among the sane, there have been wretched excesses. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich charged on "Fox and Friends" that the "folks who want to build this mosque" are "really radical Islamists" who are "trying to make a case about supremacy." In fact, the initiative's chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is so un-radical that the Bush administration enlisted him to represent this country on a post-9/11 listening tour across the Middle East.

Nevertheless, Gingrich, a possible 2012 Republican presidential contender, argued, "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington." Great. Comparing Nazis to the world's Muslims, many of whom are risking death every day in America's military or in alliance with it, doesn't help our healing or our national security. It only makes Osama bin Laden smile, I imagine, wherever he may be.


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