As outrage continued to build on Sunday over President Obama’s support for the mosque and Islamic cultural center slated to be built near the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, GOP leaders and presidential contenders backed the families who don’t want the complex built on hallowed ground.
On Sunday, Texas Sen. John Cornyn even suggested there could be political fallout over the president’s remarks in the midterm elections.
Obama is "disconnected from mainstream America" and voters this fall will "render their verdict," said Cornyn, who leads the GOP's Senate campaign committee.
Obama’s support for the mosque was one of the leading topics discussed on the Sunday morning news shows. By early Sunday, nearly all of the major GOP presidential contenders had weighed in on the controversy:
- “Fact president refuses to face is the ground zero mosque is a political statement of radical Islamist triumph over world trade center,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted on Saturday. “Over 100 mosques already in New York City... President Obama profoundly wrong in misrepresenting ground zero mosque. There is no issue of religious liberty. He won't face truth.”
- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin referred her Twitter followers to an article by two liberal Canadian Muslims who called the mosque a deliberate act of provocation. Palin’s tweet: “Mr. President, why are they so set on marking an area w/ mosque steps from what you described, in agreement with many, as "hallowed ground”?
- Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, though he represents a relatively heavily Muslim state, rebuffed pleas from local Muslim leaders to back off his suggestion that the mosque would "degrade and disrespect" the Trade Center site, Politico reported.
- A spokesman for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cited both "the wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda" in opposing it.
Republicans appeared to be on solid political ground in taking a position against the mosque. Nearly every poll on the issue has showed overwhelming opposition to the Islamic center plans, as well as profound doubts about the motives of those behind its funding.
A recent CNN poll showing that 68 percent of Americans oppose the construction of the mosque. A Pew poll found last year that 55 percent of conservative Republicans believe Islam encourages violence.
Moreover, leading Christian and conservative groups that form the base of the Republican Party have also loudly voiced opposition to the ground zero mosque. The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based Jewish organization with a mission to fight anti-Semitism, said in a July 28 statement that another location should be found.
“In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain -- unnecessarily -- and that is not right,” the statement, posted on the group’s website, said.
Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles Burlingame was the pilot of the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon, said the mosque issue was part of a larger debate about the “clash of civilizations.”
"I do ascribe to the 'clash of civilizations' theory now," Burlingame told Politico, referring to a much-discussed theory that Islam in its current state is a natural antagonist to Judeo-Christianity and Western civilization. She also is among the main voices questioning the funding behind the proposed mosque, and the intents of the imam behind it, Feisal Abdul Rauf.
She told Politico that Rauf has made statements supporting radical elements of Islam, and that the location was chosen to be provocative. She also slammed those, mostly led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who are defending the project under freedom of religion, saying, "That's a Western concept."
"This is a different model," she told Politico, arguing that in the United States people "for generations had been raised on this concept of separation of church and state, and that you don't trash someone because of their religion ... but that's not what we're dealing with here."
"I think the challenge for us is enlisting the Muslims who have already bought into the American program and not adjusting" to Muslim culture, she added. For Burlingame, the issue is not political — she said she objects to the content as well as the form of efforts by Bloomberg and others to push back because the goal is "to shut you up."
The president, meanwhile, seemed to back off from his stronger statements Friday night at a Ramadan dinner at the White House.
During a visit to Florida Saturday, Obama said his support for the right of a Muslim group to build an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site isn’t necessarily an endorsement of the project.
“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there,” Obama said during a trip with his family to the Gulf of Mexico. “I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding. That is what our country is about.”
But on Friday, Obama seemed to offer unabashed support for the mosque as she spoke during an annual White House Iftar dinner, marking the breaking of the daily fast in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said at the dinner. “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.”
White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said Obama, in making his comments in Florida, “is not backing off in any way” from his statement at the Iftar dinner.
“It is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project,” Burton said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg Businessweek. “But it is his responsibility to stand up for the constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans.”
Politico noted that Republican leaders have largely abandoned former President George W. Bush's post-9/11 rhetorical embrace of American Muslims and his insistence — always controversial inside the party — that Islam is a religion of peace. The shift fits with traditional Republican attacks on Democratic weakness on security policy.
"Bush went against the grain of his own constituency," said Allen Roth, a political aide to conservative billionaire Ron Lauder and, independently, a key organizer of the fight against the mosque. "This is part of an underlying set of security issues that could play a significant role in the elections this November.
"George Bush made every attempt to reach out," said Rep. Pete King, a leading critic of the mosque project. "The Muslim community did not reciprocate, did not respond. After Sept. 11, some of them became entrenched and really didn't know how to cope.
"Somehow the leadership in the community does not impel them forward to be more part of the community. That's my reading of it," said King, who also notes that sensitivities involving the site are far deeper, and more real, than many are willing to recognize beyond the boundaries of New York.
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