These are the personal views of Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission:
Sometimes religious leaders and presidents act on good principle but exercise poor judgment. The New York mosque controversy may provide a textbook example.
Plans to construct a mosque and community center in close proximity to Ground Zero may be well intended by Islamic leaders to educate Americans and other visitors about the positive role Muslim Americans play in U.S. life.
Well before the international conflicts of late 20th century, Muslims were a small but productive community in the U.S. Many worked in the auto industry in Michigan, where significant numbers settled, and our finest universities boast Muslims among their faculty.
Raised and educated in New York, I played as a child, was later educated and now work with gentle, decent Muslim colleagues born here and abroad who adopted the U.S. And like a cigar maker named Peter Morici did quite close to Ground Zero some 110 years ago, they have every right to do so.
Sadly, the central role Islamic extremism played in the September 2011 attack on the World Trade Center has engendered passions and irrational fears among many New Yorkers and other Americans about Islam, and it might be wiser to locate a mosque and community center further away from the site of the attack.
Like it or not, if the folks you want to reach think you are in their face, they will hear you shouting not reasoning–no matter your intention.
President Barack Obama was correct when he said Muslims have the right to build a place of worship and community center on private property in Manhattan, in accordance with local laws, and respecting rights strengthens our freedom of religion.
After all, it poses no real threat to anyone and would symbolize our tolerance, courage and strength.
That said, religious freedom is not absolute, any more than is freedom of speech. We can’t conduct worship services in a high school cafeteria, and a judge could determine the area in proximity to Ground Zero is a public shrine and subject to restrictions that serve public peace and order.
The mosque is already a source of great debate in the New York gubernatorial campaign. But neither the president nor the government in Albany will have the last word in the conflict.
Either the mosque goes up or the state and city of New York must deny necessary permits and defend their actions in court, where those governments would likely lose.
By weighing in, the president only further inflames tempers, and appears to be taking sides in an issue where his principles will likely prevail regardless of whether he speaks.
But speaking as he did, he appeared to be using the controversy to score political points with Muslims and clearly that has backfired. He has been forced to back off his endorsement, and not for the best reasons.
The president doesn’t look very principled or sincere at this moment.
President Obama appears to want to be the nation’s moral leader and decision maker on every social, economic and political issue.
Check the Constitution–that’s not his job and for good reason. No one is that smart, and no one has that much intellect, energy and resources–not even the president of the United States.
President Obama would do well to start picking his battles and doing battle where he can help, and let the rest of the U.S. run itself.
–The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org