The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Friday, 20 August 2010

Political Courage and the New York Mosque

During the past week, President Obama has stirred a great deal of emotion in the United States after lending support to the construction of a mosque close to Ground Zero. Were Obama's comments an act of political courage? Did he inadvertently politicise an issue that should have been dealt with at the local level? Has he opened a door that the Democrats should have kept firmly shut? These are all questions that many people are asking.

First, what constitutes an adequate distance from Ground Zero? There's a huge difference between building a mosque on the actual site and building one two streets away. If two streets is not far enough, then what is? Four? Six? You simply can't claim there is a two mile exclusion zone around the site within which no Islamic establishment can be built. Not only is that argument offensive to all Muslims, it's particularly offensive to the families of those Muslims that were killed on 9/11.

So, although Obama's comments were morally and constituionally correct, will they have negative political consequences? There are numerous reports that suggest his popularity has declined sharply over the last week. There is also the question of whether this was an act of political courage or a move to shore-up support from minority groups.

Even if it was a courageous statement, was it the right thing to do? While the content of the statement was certainly correct, addressing the issue so directly has turned it into a national debate, perhaps reinforcing divisions rather than healing them. This will be a conundrum for many politicians that seek to address ethnic tension - should they speak out in defence of religious freedom, or should they avoid these discussions for fear of what may be said in the ensuing debate?

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