There is no shortage of people looking to gain political capital from New York's Ground Zero Islam debate
Once again the issue of religious tolerance is confronting the United States. The uproar over the proposed Muslim/interfaith community centre near "Ground Zero" in New York has rekindled the debate over Islam in post-9/11 America. And this time, a number of political bigwigs have jumped on the bandwagon to make their voices heard, generating political capital along the way.
Although he fell short of endorsing the community centre itself, President Barack Obama did the right thing by taking his stance based on the core value that the country was founded upon. Speaking at a White House dinner to recognise the fasting month of Ramadan, Obama said Muslims "have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. … This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable".
The builders of the proposed community centre, Daisy Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, saw the project as a community facility, or so they thought. Besides a prayer room, the centre - which is often referred to as Park 51 - would devote the rest of its space to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, and a gymnasium with a swimming pool. The site is two blocks away from the former World Trade Centre site, now known as Ground Zero.
The couple behind the proposed centre is known for speaking out against religious violence, and have consulted with Jews and Christians in Manhattan on how to move their project forward. Among their supporters are the Jewish Community Centre in Manhattan, the United Jewish Federation of New York, the Trinity Church and September 11 Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow. Khan has also "joined the board of the 9/11 memorial and museum".
A Kuwaiti immigrant, Faisal is the author of "What's Right With Islam Is What's Right with America". He is also vice-chair of the Interfaith Centre of New York.
The couple runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which promotes interfaith collaboration, and is also involved in youth and women's empowerment. Moreover, the FBI has been consulting Imam Faisal for help with "sensitive training" for its agents and police officers.
All in all, the couple has probably done more than any other ordinary Americans in terms of helping the country's people and government come to terms with the scars of September 11.
Apparently, that's not enough for some people.
Indeed, it didn't take long for national political figures like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich to unleash their wrath. Others followed suit, including former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organisation.
As noted in a recent poll published in the American press, the farther away from Ground Zero one gets, the greater the number of opponents of the plan. While a great number of people in Manhattan support it, people in Kansas don't.
While Palin appealed to "the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001", Gingrich called the proposed centre "an assertion of Islamist triumphalism" and added that supporters of the project were "apologists for radical Islamist hypocrisy". The so-called intellectual light of the Republican Party also stated that: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia."
Perhaps the Bangkok government should urge Gingrich to include Buddhist temples on his list of what should be permitted in Saudi Arabia. Apparently, Palin and Gingrich think that anguish entitles one to abandon tolerance and rationality. The sad thing about this is that many Americans feel the same way.
For men and women running for public office, political exploitation is nothing new, and certainly this behaviour is not confined to America. There is plenty to go around in Thailand, Southeast Asia and everywhere else. But what transpires in Lower Manhattan will matter not just to Americans but the world as well. How America deals with its Muslim citizens will make an impression on how it is perceived around the world, not least among Muslim countries. If the era of former President George W Bush tells us anything, it is that how the US deals with the Muslim world affects us all.