The Daily Star, 21st August, 2001
M. Serajul Islam
AT an event in the White House marking the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, President Obama defended the right of the Muslims to build a 13 storey cultural center and a mosque to be named Cordoba House at a stone's throw from Ground Zero. Ever since the news of this project became known, various groups and politicians have vehemently opposed the project. Sarah Palin called the project a stab in the heart of the families of the victims of 9/11. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich called the project “an assertion of Islamist triumphalism”. One protester's billboard read: “Islam builds mosque at site of their conquests.”
The US President gave his support for the project in the presence of US Congressmen, government officials and diplomats, stressing unequivocally that denying the project would contradict US' commitment to religious freedom. The President highlighted what the opponents of the project have avoided mentioning; that the project would in fact be a short distance away from the hallowed Ground Zero and on private land that is subject to local laws. The President further said that the United States welcomes people of all faith to live in the country and the law treats all religious groups as equal. Hence, he said, the project must have the green light of the concerned authorities just like any other project of any religious community in the USA.
The White House had initially hesitated getting involved in an extremely sensitive issue. It had left it to the local authority ever since a New York developer had announced plans for the project and controversy erupted over it immediately. Among the few notable politicians who did not oppose the project has been the New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After its initial hesitation, President Obama backed the project with clear understanding of what the US stands for and the values it preaches in its contacts with the international community. He said America's religious tolerance sets it apart from “its enemies” and it is on the basis of that tolerance, the project must be given official approval.
There was one particular reference that made the President's support for the mosque at Ground Zero both refreshing and full of promise. To his audience at the White House, the President said, “Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam…It is a gross distortion of Islam”. In the days, months and years till President Bush left office, the US and its allies had lumped Al Qaeda, Islam and all the Muslims of the world into one; holding them responsible for the 3,000 deaths in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. In Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of innocent Muslim men, women and children paid the price because the administration of George Bush felt that the followers of Islam must pay for the actions of few dozens of Al Qaeda. At the height of insensitivity, his administration called the death of these hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims as “collateral damage.” Looking back in retrospect into those days, one cannot but draw many unfortunate conclusions from President Bush's reference to the word “crusade” that he blurted out to the media in giving his first reaction on 9/11.
For years, it was not the Iraqis and the Afghans who were called day in and day out to answer for the crimes of Al Qaeda. The name “Mohammad” which millions of Muslim men all over the world use as their first name became a hassle for travelling to the USA and for those living in that country. Another first name “Abu” became equally suspect because a few of the 9/11 hijackers had “Abu” as their first name. Even kids were stopped at airports and questioned who had such a first name. Very few Muslims have travelled by air in the USA and to the country since 9/11 without fear of being put to security screening that made such travelling a nightmare. The sad aspect of facing such nightmares has been the fact that the Muslim world was deeply hurt and angered by the acts of 9/11. Many Muslim countries supported the US and allied attack of Afghanistan in pursuit of the Al Qaeda.
In June last year, President Obama had given his historic speech in Cairo extending US' hand of friendship to the Muslim world in an attempt to bridge the deep divide his predecessor had inserted between the West and Islam like he was following on Professor Huntington's prophecy of the clash of civilizations. In the early 1990s, this Harvard Political Scientist had evolved the thesis that in the post Cold War era, people's cultural and religious identities would be the primary source of conflict. Under President Bush, it looked all but inevitable that the clash of civilizations had begun; a clash that had the potentials of grave consequences for the world. With the presidency of President Obama, that doomsday prediction seems to have been averted. Most recently, he has kept his election pledge to end the US occupation of Iraq by handing Iraq back to the Iraqis. Although he has been forced to increase troops in Afghanistan, he had little option but to accept his Commander in Afghanistan General McCrystal's recommendation of fighting Taliban resurgence. Recently, he has sacked the General and replaced with General Petraeus who as Commanding General of Multi National Forces in Iraq, has been credited for turning the tide in that country. In Iran, the President has kept his promise to seek a solution on the nuclear issue through negotiations, in the process inching away from the preparations that were made by his predecessor for an armed intervention there.
President Obama is living up to the promises for which just not the USA but the world, particularly the Muslim world, had hoped he would win the election for the White House. On the Palestinian issue he has not yet lived up to the expectations of the Muslims. Nevertheless, they feel that he would do the right thing for settling the Palestinian cause eventually; namely ensure they are free and have a state with East Jerusalem as the capital. For the moment, his firm stand on the mosque on Ground Zero has assured Muslims that under his watch, they can hope to receive fair treatment and not victimized simply for being a Muslim.
The President's support has come when elections to the Congress are due in three months and the Democrats are in a tight corner. He has thus placed ethics and principles ahead of politics that not enhances his credibility to the Muslims only but also his stature as a statesman to the rest of the world.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign