As the controversy over the redevelopment of the former Burlington coat factory at 45 Park Place in Lower Manhattan continues, many politicians – mainly Democrats – have stayed firmly on the fence. Until yesterday evening, that had included the Prez himself. Not any more.
Barack Obama, at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan – so a rather obviously receptive audience – spoke out unequivocally in favour of the right to build the Cordoba Centre, an Islamic but also interfaith cultural centre which will also include a prayer space, subject to the same rules and restrictions as any other religious faith.
He could not have put it more plainly: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable”. He is correct. And, of course, the building as proposed is not a mosque: there will be no minaret or call to prayer, though no doubt some detractors will say otherwise.
The Cordoba Centre is envisaged as an Islamic equivalent of the 92nd Street Y, which started out in the nineteenth century as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and has evolved into an emphatically Jewish institution, yet also reaching out to all faiths and ethnic groups.
Nobody would call the 92nd Street Y a Synagogue, so there is little reason, other than the need to be confrontational and inflammatory, to call the Cordoba Centre a mosque. And of course there is equally no need to assert that a building which is two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center is actually on that site.
One of those making that assertion, and calling the Cordoba Centre a mosque, is Republican Newt Gingrich – a potential presidential candidate in 2012 – who ought to know the difference between cultural centres and places of worship: go into the About part of the 92nd Street Y website and see whose face looks out of the video still at you.
That would be Newt.