- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Muslims around the world see the ground zero mosque debate raging in the U.S. as a litmus test of American tolerance, and generally appreciate President Obama’s involvement.

In Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, Mr. Obama has won praise from commentators for his support for Muslims’ right to build a place of worship where they like.

Endy M. Bayuni, a former editor-in-chief of the Jakarta Post, even jokingly suggested trading Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for Mr. Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.

Obama could have refrained from making any statement, directly or indirectly, to the mosque controversy and help his Democrat congressmen face the November election. But he did what any decent democratically elected leader and statesman would do, which is to uphold the Constitution and defend the right of minority Muslims,” Mr. Bayuni wrote.

Yet not all Muslims think the Islamic center should be built near ground zero.

Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya television, wrote in the Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that Mr. Obama adopted “an unnecessary and unimportant stance, even as far as Muslims are concerned,” by supporting the construction of the center.

“The mosque is not an issue for Muslims, and they are not bothered by its construction,” Mr. Al-Rashed said. “Muslims do not aspire for a mosque next to the 11 September cemetery.”

In the U.S., the issue continues to leave politicians twisting, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

After saying Tuesday that there was “a concerted effort to make this a political issue” and that she supported “looking into” how those opposed to the mosque are being funded, Mrs. Pelosi on Wednesday said backers of the mosque and community center also should be vetted.

“There is a need for transparency about who is funding the effort to build this Islamic center. At the same time, we should also ask who is funding the attacks against the construction of the center,” she said in a statement.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, said he had “no regrets” about wading into the controversy, in which he first defended the right to build a mosque “in Lower Manhattan,” but later said that doesn’t mean he’s taking a stand on whether it’s a good idea.

The issue has split political parties. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, broke with Mr. Obama, saying the mosque should be built elsewhere, while a Republican congressional candidate in New York wrote on his Facebook page that “it’s either all or nothing - churches, synagogues and mosques should be treated the same.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said that by hedging on the issue, Mr. Obama has opened the door wide for the debate to persist.

Mr. Zogby said people around the world are “horrified and frightened” by the tone of the debate in the U.S.

Scott Atran, a research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris who studies Islamic terrorism in Indonesia, said Indonesians and others in Muslim countries are “outraged at what is perceived as the bigotry of ‘the majority’ of Americans,” but they support what is viewed with admiration by Indonesian intellectuals as Mr. Obama’s “minority” stance.

An editorial in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said “some American politicians appear to have calculated that Islamophobia is a potent vote-getter. But that is as dangerous as it is self-defeating. Al Qaeda and militant Islamists could probably not dream of a better propaganda opportunity: see, they will say, America really is against Islam. The furor over the mosque isn’t winning hearts and minds for America, it is poisoning them.”

But Raheel Raza and Tarek Fatah, authors who sit on the board of the Muslim Canadian Congress, call the mosque too provocative and warn that the center will “forever be a lightning rod for those who have little room for Muslims or Islam in the U.S.

“We simply cannot understand why on Earth the traditional leadership of America’s Muslims would not realize their folly and back out in an act of goodwill,” they wrote in the Ottawa Citizen.

The man behind the Islamic center, Imam Feisal Rauf, is heading to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates this week on an outreach trip funded by the Obama administration.

The center, known officially as Park 51, will be located a couple of blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood. It will house a mosque, a swimming pool, a basketball court, an auditorium, a library, a day care facility and restaurants.

Mr. Zogby said the controversy over the Islamic center will cause more damage to the reputation of the U.S. than Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.

“How you treat an Iraqi prisoner is one thing, how you treat your own is a measure of who you are, and I think in this instance we are failing badly,” Mr. Zogby said.

“The rhetoric is not about the location. It is about Muslims. Period,” he added.

In India, which has the world’s third-largest population of Muslims, communal tensions periodically erupt between majority Hindus and Muslims. Tensions reached a flash point after the demolition of an ancient mosque by rampaging Hindus in Ayodhya in 1992.

M.J. Akbar, editor of the Sunday Guardian newspaper, described the opposition to Park 51 as “bewildering.”

“A mosque near the World Trade Center will epitomize the partnership necessary for a common struggle against the horror of terrorism and its evil masterminds, wherever they might live,” Mr. Akbar wrote in a recent column.

“Bigotry is not the exclusive property of any denomination; Muslims offer their share in the long list of self-appointed leaders who spawn the culture that leads to terrorism from pulpits which desecrate the meaning of a mosque. But it is utterly self-defeating to blame Islam, or the vast majority of peaceful Muslims, for the sins of a few,” he added.

Amid the clatter, there is praise for the fact that the debate is a part of American life.

In Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, columnist Ilhan Tanir notes with admiration the ability in the U.S. “to discuss an event which has left such a big scar in its recent memory.”

“Nobody should belittle the opposition’s arguments. There is a genuine confusion in the minds of Americans in terms of understanding Islam’s true nature. … For them, a mosque is a place that breeds the terrorism which haunt their children at the end,” Mr. Tanir wrote.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that only 19 percent of Americans surveyed said they followed news about the proposed Islamic center very closely.