Barack Obama's endorsement of the construction of a Muslim community center, including a mosque, two streets away from Ground Zero is commensurate with the president's worldview and his strategy for fighting Islamic terror.
Obama's worldview espouses historic reconciliation between the United States and the Muslims and Arab world; his strategy distinguishes between moderate Islam, which can be engaged in dialogue, and radical and violent Islam, which should be fought.
In order to realize this strategy, Obama delivered reconciliation speeches in Cairo and in Ankara at the beginning of his presidential term; he frequently talks about the need to avoid generalizations that position all Muslims in one anti-American camp.
The plan to establish the Muslim center ignited an emotional controversy. On the one hand we have the Muslims who seek to realize their right for freedom of religion and Jewish Mayor Michael Bloomberg who backed their request; on the other hand we have the victims' families and an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who object to establishing the center so close to Ground Zero, where radical Muslims demolished the Twin Towers and killed about 3,000 civilians.
At a dinner on the occasion of Ramadan, Obama used the opportunity to take a position and endorsed the plan. After sustaining criticism from all directions he took a step back and attempted to argue that he merely intended to endorse freedom of religion, rather than the specific plan. Yet this clarification is deceptive.
We are not dealing with religious freedom here. Nobody prevents Muslims from building mosques in the US. The problem pertains to the establishment of a Muslim center close to Ground Zero. The families of victims argue that building the mosque would hurt their feelings while most New Yorkers feel the plan rubs salt on their wounds. Had the Muslims offered to build the center in another area of New York, nobody would disapprove.
Obama's strategy utter failureThe war over the mosque erupted a few weeks ahead of the elections for Congress. Obama's Republican rivals were quick to exploit the opportunity and slammed him harshly. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich compared the building of a mosque near Ground Zero to the placement of a Nazi swastika near the Holocaust museum.
Democratic politicians also disapproved of Obama's statements. Why did he step into a confrontation that was local in nature thus far, making a statement that may prompt more voters to shun his party?
The answer has to do with ideological and strategic devotion. This is what Obama thinks, and he usually says what he thinks. His supporters argue that establishing the center in Ground Zero would contribute to the war on Islamic terrorists and al-Qaeda by bringing moderate Muslims closer. Obama's rivals respond that the plan will be interpreted by the radicals and those sitting on the fence as yet another victory in undermining the US.
Thus far, Obama's strategy of wooing the world's Muslims has been an utter failure. Despite the prominent dispute vis-à-vis Israel, the reconciliation speeches, and the warm embrace for America's Muslims community, recent polls in Muslim states showed that hostility towards the US and doubts towards Obama are back to pre-election rates.
In light of the above, the argument that building a mosque near Ground Zero would contribute to the war against al-Qaeda seems unfounded. While the harm to victims' families and New Yorkers is substantial and immediate, the expected strategic outcome is rather questionable. It would have been better for all parties involved to come up with another site that would grant Muslim freedom of worship while being endorsed by the families and New York residents.
Professor Eytan Gilboa is an expert on US affairs and serves as director of Bar-Ilan University's Center for International Communication