Have you heard about the "ground zero mosque?" They're going to build a great towering monstrosity of a thing, a gloating reminder of what they did to us on 9/11, a thumb in the eye of any real Americans who want to pay respect to those lost on that tragic day.
It will, according to Rudy Giuliani, be a "desecration" of ground zero. Newt Gingrich has called it an "assertion of Islamist triumphalism." And Sarah Palin was so incensed at what she called a "stab ... in the heart" that she coined a new word, calling on peaceful Muslims to "refudiate" the project.
It's too bad they're wrong. The debate over the so-called ground zero mosque, which is neither a mosque nor at ground zero, is certainly a cause for anger and outrage. But it's not because some Americans want to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to worship freely. Rather it's troubling as an expression of a new Know-Nothingism that is infecting our politics, especially on the demagogic right.
The phrase "ground zero mosque" conjures images of a minaret-adorned structure sprouting on or abutting ground zero. But the truth is less provocative. The project is sponsored by the Cordoba Initiative, a group whose stated mission is to achieve an "atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect" among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The $100 million building they want to construct, called Park51 (for its address on Park Place) is not a mosque as such, but rather a community center with a restaurant, a swimming pool, a performing arts center, and, yes, prayer space. (Muslims, by the way, already gather weekly in the existing building to pray. Should they be barred from doing so?)
And it's not at ground zero. Park Place is a small street two blocks north of where the twin towers stood. The intervening blocks have buildings taller than the planned center. Someone standing at ground zero, in other words, would not be aware of Park51's existence; though when the Freedom Tower finally rises from the World Trade Center's footprints, it will be visible throughout most of lower Manhattan and beyond. Park51 will be just another building in what Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a defender of the project, called the "diverse and dense" city.
The symbolism of a Muslim community center being just another building in the shadow of the Freedom Tower is one we should embrace. It speaks to our diversity and the strength of our ideals. It's certainly more attractive than that of political leaders in the world's most powerful nation rallying to deny its most fundamental rights to a tiny minority.
Opponents say that Park51's mere proximity to ground zero is an intentional political statement, and it almost certainly is. It says that not all Muslims are radical killers and thugs, and that Islamic moderates won't be cowed into letting terrorists be the face of their religion. Isn't that what we've wanted?
Certainly it's a provocative message, one that will incite rage in Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Interfaith tolerance and respect are the last things on their agenda. So why are the likes of Palin, Gingrich, and Giuliani taking up bin Laden's cause?
Perhaps because the distinction between the terrorists and the religion, which George W. Bush was so careful to make after 9/11, is no longer operative. But it bears repeating. The fact that all the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim does not make all Muslims terrorists, any more than the fact that Ku Klux Klansmen are avowedly Christian makes all Christians white supremacists. The problem isn't religion but fanaticism.
Indeed, the Park51 debate is symptomatic of a new nativist fanaticism emerging in certain quarters of our politics. You can also see it in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where plans for a Muslim community center (or mosque, as its critics call it) were a hot issue in the Republican gubernatorial primary. One candidate, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, suggested that First Amendment protections for freedom of religion might not apply to Muslims. "Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it," he said in a campaign appearance, a video of which was posted last month on YouTube.