Washington - Lies, distortions, jingoism, xenophobia -- another day, another campaign issue that Republicans can use to bash President Obama and the Democrats. First it was illegal immigration. Now it's the so-called "Ground Zero mosque," which is not at all what its opponents claim.
First, it's not at Ground Zero. The site in question is two blocks north of the former World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan; an existing mosque is just a few hundred feet more distant from the site of the collapsed towers. Second, while the planned building will indeed house a place of worship, it is designed to be more of a community center along the lines of a YMCA. Plans include a fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, bookstore, performing arts center and food court. Kebabs do not threaten our way of life.
Most important, organizers have made clear that the whole point of the project is to provide a high-profile platform for mainstream, moderate Islam -- and to stridently reject the warped, radical, jihadist worldview that produced the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001.
"It will have a real community feel, to celebrate the pluralism in the United States, as well as in the Islamic religion," Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, said in May as she argued for permission to build the center. "It will also serve as a major platform for amplifying the silent voice of the majority of Muslims who have nothing to do with extremist ideologies. It will counter the extremist momentum."
Actually, it will take much more than one community center to stop radical jihad in its tracks. But it's hard to think of a better way to give extremist ideology a major boost than to demonstrate what far too many of the world's 1 billion Muslims already believe is true: that the West rejects not just extremism but Islam itself.
"Three hundred of the victims (of the Sept. 11 attacks) were Muslim," Khan told CNN. "We are Americans too. The 9/11 tragedy hurt everybody, including the Muslim community. We are all in this together, and together we have to fight against extremism and terrorism."
President Obama was correct to say Friday that Muslims "have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in the country," and that this "includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances." Obama's remarks came at a White House dinner marking Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.
The first White House observance of Ramadan was hosted in 1805 by Thomas Jefferson. He invited the Tunisian ambassador to the President's House for dinner, and changed the time of the meal from the usual "half after three" to "precisely at sunset" so the envoy could comply with the Ramadan obligation to fast during daylight hours.
Jefferson's well-thumbed copy of the Koran is now in the Library of Congress. If the author of the Declaration of Independence were alive today, he would surely face censure from the big-mouthed, small-minded coterie of Republican presidential hopefuls.
Sarah Palin wrote on Twitter that the "Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts." Newt Gingrich wrote that "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that the mosque would "degrade or disrespect" the site. Mike Huckabee asked whether supporters of the project believe "we can offend Americans and Christians, but not foreigners and Muslims." Mitt Romney is against it, too, citing "the wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda."
This is pandering, pure and simple. A CNN poll showed that 68 percent of Americans opposed a plan by "a group of Muslims in the U.S." to build "a mosque" two blocks from the World Trade Center site. I wonder what the results might look like if pollsters had phrased the question differently -- if they had asked, say, whether "a group of Americans" should be allowed to build "a center promoting moderate, peaceful Islam." It might be, though, that most people oppose the project however the issue is framed.
And that's why we have a Bill of Rights that protects our freedoms against the whims of public opinion. Jefferson understood this. A bunch of opportunistic politicians -- who love to quote him -- obviously do not.
Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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