Howard Dean's Democracy For America Breaks With Him On Mosque Debate

Howard Dean's Democracy For America Breaks With Him On Mosque Debate

UPDATE: Former Governor Dean appeared on "Countdown" Thursday to talk more about Park51. Scroll down to watch Dean's exchange with Olbermann.

The grassroots political organization founded by Howard Dean after the 2004 presidential election has made a dramatic break with the former DNC chairman over the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero.

Democracy for America, a million-plus member organization that is active on a host of legislative fronts, formally endorsed the controversial Cordoba House on Thursday, one day after its founding figure called for the project to be built elsewhere.

In a letter sent to members, the group's executive director, Arshad Hasan, weaves together his personal history with a detailed explanation of the project's lofty and noble objectives. In a direct but diplomatic touch, he addresses Dean's opposition only by explaining that "well-intentioned" Democrats are "getting caught up" in the anti-mosque hysteria. "It's not helping," writes Hasan.

[L]et's be clear, the subject of the highest profile Muslim structure, 51 Park in New York City, will have a basketball court and a culinary school. Two floors will have a prayer room. The other eleven will host movie nights, performances, group dinners, etc -- it's basically a Muslim YMCA, open to everyone. These moderate Muslims are doing everything we could ask of them. They're trying to build a bridge in the communities they live in, trying to show the world that Muslims are cool and interesting and diverse, and proving that being a Muslim does not equal being a terrorist.

But they're being thrown under the bus by our elected leaders, egged on by some of the ugliest elements of the right-wing. Well-intentioned leaders of the Democratic Party are getting caught up in the fray as well, some of them seeking to find common ground with an implacable opposition. It's not helping.

This isn't just a Manhattan problem. Right now, there is opposition to mosques in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Southern California, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, and dozens of other locations across our nation. Where would they move? If public pressure can be brought to bear to take down the most high-profile Muslim community center in liberal NYC, then these other places don't even have a chance, Ground Zero connection or not.

Frankly, this isn't about Ground Zero. This is about America. This is about freedom. This is about people and there seems to be no place that Muslim people can go without being harassed.

The harassment has to stop, and that starts with you and me.

I think most people agree that Muslims have the right to worship. But these efforts to harass Muslims are based in fear, prejudice, and ignorance. Removing a community center doesn't solve these problems. But talking about religious freedom -- really engaging people -- can open people's minds, and blunt the prejudice.

DFA's endorsement illustrates some of the obvious disagreements that have begun dividing not just the Democratic Party but also the progressive community in the mosque debate. The project has vehement support from the majority of party figures. But a host of Democrats have expressed reservations with the proposal as well.

Dean disappointed the pro-construction crowd when he told a radio station on Wednesday that he thought the mosque would be "a real affront to people who lost their lives" on 9/11. The former DNC chair stood by his position in an interview with the Huffington Post on Wednesday night, stressing that he wouldn't have a problem if the proposed Islamic cultural center is eventually built but thought it would be better to find a compromise location.

"It won't upset me," Dean said, "except I think it is a missed opportunity to show some flexibility... I don't believe all this nonsense the right wing is putting out about radicals and all that stuff. I take the congregation at its word that it is a moderate congregation trying to heal the wounds of 9/11. But the best way to heal the wounds is not to have a court battle, but to sit down and try to work things out."

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