It’s not clear how much of a chance President Obama took politically in asserting that “Muslims have the right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.” He made this statement at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan yesterday, and the vast number of Americans would likely agree. The President went a step further in defending the right of Muslims to build a $100 million, 13-story, Islamic complex just a few blocks from ground zero. Polls suggest that a large majority of Americans oppose building the Islamic Center so close to ground zero.
Conservative politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, and local leaders in New York have opposed building the Islamic center and mosque so close to ground zero. They call it insensitive.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg applauded the President’s remarks this way :
“Two hundred and twenty years ago this week, the Father of Our Country penned his famous letter to the Jewish Community of Newport Rhode Island or, as he called them, ‘the Children of the Stock of Abraham.’ President Obama’s words tonight evoked President Washington’s own August reminder that ‘all possess alike liberty.’”
Let’s applaud President Obama for standing up to bigotry and being the statesman we need him to be. The text of President Washington’s letter [Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790] included some wonderfully wise words:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
And while it is true that proponents of radical Islam are not, in President Washington’s words, “demeaning themselves as good citizens” of the world – there are million of American Muslims who are living peacefully as citizens who are no less entitled to enjoy religious freedom than the rest of us.
Washington closed his letter with the words:
“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
Here’s to statesmanship that trumps opportunism and demagoguery. Even when its not the popular thing to do. We need our leaders to appeal to the best in us – not the worst. It’s what captured the imagination of the American people in the beginning about President Obama. Let’s hope the President’s choice to lead in this matter is a sign of a return to what made his candidacy so special.