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NY mosque row: Two Indian Americans in inter faith council back Obama

August 24, 2010 03:39 IST

The two Indian Americans on the White House inter-faith council, Eboo Patel, a Muslim, and Anju Bhargava, a Hindu, have strongly endorsed United States President Barack Obama's support for the proposed mosque cum community and Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York, saying it was a constitutional issue with regard to freedom of religion that had to be protected zealously.

Thus, Patel and Bhargava, members of the President's Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, told rediff.com that any effort to block the construction of this mosque/community center would fly squarely in the face of America's core values let alone being a blatant violation of the country's constitution.

Patel, founder and executive director of the Chicago-based international non-profit, Interfaith Youth Corps, who has been all over television since the controversy exacerbated following Obama's defense of the proposed mosque, said, "We expect our leaders to stand up for the highest principles of our nation, and President Obama did that -- and I am so proud that he did that."

"I believe when an American leader stands up for the nation's highest principles, I just call that being a 'righteous American.'"

For weeks the White House kept vacillating and refused to take a position over the controversy regarding the construction of the proposed mosque/community center -- which has divided the American public and politicians -- when asked for the administration's position, maintaining that it was a local New York City issue.

But on the evening of August 13, President Obama, while hosting an Iftar dinner at the White House, inserted himself squarely into the controversy and ignited a political firestorm, declaring that "As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in the country."

He set the stage for his unequivocal and unambiguous defense of the estimated $100 million mosque/community center -- to be known as Cordoba House -- by referring to the founding fathers of America who had made clear that one of the cardinal pillars of the country would be the freedom to practice one's religion -- a fundamental right that had been protected for over two centuries-- and continued with this pre-amble for a while before he announced that anything short of support of the construction of the mosque would be contrary to American values.

He asserted to loud and sustained applause, "Let me be clear, as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," and then obviously in an effort to be as specific as possible, said, "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

Obama reiterated, "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 that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are," and once again, referring to the founding fathers, said, "The writ of the founders must endure."

But a day later, while visiting Florida, he seemed to be back-pedaling, saying that he was only defending the constitutionality of Muslims to build this mosque and that "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there."

However, on August 18, while visiting Ohio, when a reporter shouted a question as to whether he had any regrets to getting embroiled in the controversy with his comments, he shot back, 'No regrets. No regrets at all."

Asked if he felt Obama had been back-pedaling the day after his stout defense of the building of the mosque during the iftar dinner, Patel, who writes a regular blog for the 'On Faith' forum hosted by The Washington Post, said, "I don't know. I don't read the President's mind. So, I can't tell you what he was thinking. (But) I think an important dimension of this though is any group of Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity or religion ought to be able to build an institution anywhere that is legal. And, it ought to be their choice."

"So, if the organisers of Cordoba House, choose to build in Lower Manhattan, where they currently are, that's great. If they choose to move, that fine also and that could have been what the President was saying. He's not saying that Cordoba has to be there, he's saying that it ought to be the choice of the organizers."

Asked about his appearance on CNN and his interview with CNN Weekend anchor Don Lemon, where he likened the mosque controversy to the civil rights struggle, where Blacks were told that while they could travel in the bus, they would have to go to the rear, which was also criticized as a loaded and exaggerated analogy, Patel argued that the point he was trying to make was that if Muslims were denied their legal and constitutional right to build a mosque where they wanted to, then, as during the civil rights era, it relegated them to second-class citizens.

"Freedom doesn't mean you can build your institutions here, but not there. Freedom doesn't mean you can sit on the bus here, but not there. Freedom doesn't mean you can go to school but not that school. And that's the point I was making. I was not trying to make an analogy to the broader struggle necessarily. I am saying that freedom goes for all people -- for every inch on American sacred ground," he said.

Patel asserted that "Muslims didn't bomb the twin-towers -- it was evil terrorists who bombed the twin-towers."

He said, "This is not a Muslim issue -- this is an American issue. Anytime, anybody in America for any reason, whether it's their race, or their ethnicity or their religion, or their gender, or their sexuality, is restricted, is not given equal dignity for a like liberty, it erodes a little bit of the shine that is America."

Patel said, "If this was a Jewish group that was being treated this way, I would feel responsible. If it was a Hindu group that was being treated this way, I would feel responsible. This is an American issue."

He said that it should not be forgotten that many Muslims died in the 9/11 terror attacks and that many Muslims were the first responders, fire-fighters, police officers. "American Muslims are part of this great nation where people of this great nation where people from different backgrounds live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty."

According to Patel, "The most pernicious element of the opposition to Cordoba House, is that it links American Muslims with twisted terrorists -- it paints American Muslims as if they are on the side of the terrorists when in fact, we are on the side of a nation that seeks to live its highest principles of cooperation between people of different backgrounds."

Bhargava, in echoing Patel's sentiments, said, "There is a constitutionality here that has to be protected because otherwise it can be one group today and it could be another group tomorrow."

She acknowledged that "there is a people's sensitivity, but that's a separate issue. But from a constitutional aspect, today if it them (the Muslims), tomorrow it will be somebody else."

Bhargava said even as this mosque controversy was simmering, "There is targeting of whoever is the 'other' and pointed to a Houston gurdwara under siege and being asked to relocate "and most temples in this country, they've had some problem or the other in starting to build these temples. And, we see that in gurdwaras too. So many temples have been vandalized and people do not talk about it at all."

She said, "It's important to keep in context, this country's history," and noted, "the town that I live in, Livingston, New Jersey, in 1934, the first Catholic Church was built here, and it was burnt down by a Protestant group. So that was what America was at that time and it was then the 'other' -- the Catholics. It was then the Jews and now the Muslims are the flavor of the month."

"The frame is the same, the picture is different," she added. "So there is a precedent in this country, whoever is the new kid on the block, there is always a resistance to inclusion, and today I would say, it's not just the Muslims, it's all the post-1965 immigrants who are of different faiths."

Bhargava said that this was why in the inter-faith council's recommendations one year after it's convening, "We had in our report the integrating and valuing American culture and religious diversity, especially the post-1965 immigrants, because that's when a whole lot of us have come, and from diverse backgrounds."

"While the Muslim thing is on a big scale that we are seeing, but you see (discrimination and bigoted) aspects of it against the Sikh community, you see it against the Hindu community, against the Jain community," she added.

"It's not so much in your face because the angst is not so much against these groups (as with the Muslims), but they have been vandalized. We saw most recently that one (Indian) man in New Jersey, who was killed."

Bhargava said, "The President is trying to build bridges of culture and understanding and while recognizing it's with the Muslims now, he's trying to do it with others too."

"That's what we are trying to do with the Yogathan. We are trying to have the temples invite the mainstream community to come, to see who we are, to break down barriers."

Bhargava also said there was no denying that the issue over the Ground Zero mosque -- as it has now commonly come to be known—was being politicized by vested interests "and to build up this whole thing against the President and to try to push him into a corner over this."

But, she said, "The good thing in all of this (controversy) is that you also see the goodness of American people. How many people have come out in support to say, 'No, this is not the American thing (to try and stop the construction of the mosque). Just imagine how many people—how many Christians people, how many Jewish people have come out in support."

"So, it really talks well of the openness of America. And, everything is being done relatively peacefully. There are no riots, nobody has been killed anywhere. So, I think we are witnessing a quintessential American phenomenon in many ways -- that the emotions are high, and yet the head is saying, wait a minute," she added.

Bhargava reiterated that in order to alleviate these kinds of situations, it was imperative to have inter-faith interactions "and it should not just be Muslims, Christians and Jewish. The others have also got to be included -- the Dharmic faiths -- in the inter-faith aspect so that there is a broad understanding and it doesn't get seen just as an Abrahaminical faith problem."

"It actually affects all of us and that's one of the things that I've tried to also bring into the White House -- that whatever we are seeing with the Muslim community -- which is of course on a much larger basis -- you see shades of it with everybody else also," she said.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC