Volume 23, Number 15 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 18 - 24, 2010
Gov and POTUS create media firestorm after Park51 comments; local pols react
BY John Bayles
Last week both President Obama and Governor Paterson chose to break their silence on the proposed Park51 cultural center in Lower Manhattan. Their remarks have since dominated the 24-hour news cycle, from newspapers nation-wide to CNN to Comedy Central’s the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
The President chose to weigh in on the subject at the White House’s Ramadan dinner last Friday.
“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,” began the President.
He went on to point out that throughout this country’s history “religion has flourished… precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose.” He then spoke directly to the controversy surrounding Park51.
“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… I understand the emotions that this issue engenders… Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”
But it was the President’s later remarks that stirred the media pot and continues to dominate front pages every morning.
“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. 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… our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable,” he said. “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.”
As for Lower Manhattan’s elected officials who represent their constituents on Capitol Hill, U.S. Congressman Nadler was quick to release a statement in support of Obama.
“As the Member of Congress who represents Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero, I commend President Obama’s statement on the Cordoba House and his support of our First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and separation of church and state,” said Nadler. “As I previously stated, government has no business deciding whether there should or should not be a Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero. The United States was founded on the principle of religious liberty and tolerance, and it is equally important 234 years later that we uphold this principal. Hate should have no place in America.”
One day later the President was again confronted with the question about the so-called “mosque near Ground Zero.” Right-wing pundits from Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh pounced. They accused Obama of flip-flopping, when, on the following day during a visit to the oil-infested Gulf Coast, he said, “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque [near Ground Zero]. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.”
Nadler though pointed out that “clarifying a statement one day later is not really flip-flopping.” Had the President waited for poll numbers to surface, or even waited a week to ingest the criticism by the media, and then made the same statement, it might be considered a “recalibration.” Instead, Nadler believes it was two parts of a singular statement.
U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney said, “I applaud and agree with the defense of religious freedom expressed by President Obama, and I’m glad the President spoke out about this issue, which is really about the fundamental liberties we enjoy as Americans. As I’ve said before, while I understand the strong emotions this proposal has created among some 9/11 family members, survivors, and first responders, I believe that preventing the project from being built would run counter to our proud constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble.”
Maloney continued, “I stand with many in our community, including Mayor Bloomberg and Community Board 1, in supporting the rights of the project’s planners to build in lower Manhattan, which I believe will be a signal to the world that the terrorists will never be able to destroy the American traditions of openness and tolerance.”
The Gov makes an offer
After months of remaining mute on the subject, Governor Paterson, last Tuesday, decided to speak out.
“I think it’s rather clear that building a center there meets all the requirements, but it does seem to ignite an immense amount of anxiety among the citizens of New York and people everywhere, and I think not without cause,” Paterson said.
The Governor then suggested finding “state-owned land” on which the Cordoba Initiative might consider building their cultural center.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in response, said, “I am a strong believer in freedom of religion and therefore I will not oppose construction of the mosque at the location currently proposed but there should be sensitivities to the deep feelings surrounding this issue.”
State Senator Daniel Squadron though, spoke more freely on the subject and pointed out the perhaps hidden agendas of those who have adopted the issue as a campaign talking point.
“The Governor is welcome to say what he thinks is best,” said Squadron. “But my view is they obviously have every right to be here and Lower Manhattan welcomes diversity.”
Squadron went on to opine on what he believes is the real reason the issue has gained so much national press.
“Frankly the whole issue in my view is being pushed by right-wing partisan political strategists. It’s a classic right-wing playbook [move] in a election year, which is to divide and terrify.”
The senator had a litany of examples to back up is opinion.
“In 2008 it was Obama’s citizenship. In 2006 it was immigration. In 2004 it was the Swift Boats. And then in 1988 it was Willie Horton. Every August, in an election year, you can make sure the right wing will find a boogey man and try and divide the country,” Squadron said.
“Unfortunately it’s not about winning the battle [concerning Park51]. It’s about winning November elections. The community has been clear. This is not a real issue, this is a right-wing partisan issue.”