Offering his first public comments on the decision to build a 13-storey Islamic centre and mosque near the site of the twin towers in New York City, the US president, Barack Obama, has made what, to many, is a statement of the obvious:
We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground. But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country.
That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.
Until now the president has steered away from commenting on a subject his press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted was a local matter. It was left to the independent-minded, formerly Republican mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, to give the proposal the green light.
Bloomberg has now welcomed Obama’s belated intervention, comparing it with a letter President George Washington wrote in support of a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790. Quoted on CNN.com, Bloomberg said: “President Obama’s words tonight evoked President Washington’s own august reminder that ‘all possess alike liberty’.”
Asked whether they shared the president’s view that “Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country”, 80 per cent checked the box that said: “No, this is about sensitivity, not religion.” That’s 89,431 votes in this unscientific poll and counting . . .