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Opinion: Bigotry at Ground Zero

Does the mosque controversy support Bin Laden’s contention that the West is at war with Islam?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Rabbi Arthur Waskow speaks at a news conference to show support for a proposed mosque at 45 Park Place in New York City on Aug. 5, 2010. The controversial Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Center, if built, would be only blocks from Ground Zero. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

BOSTON — The controversy over a mosque close to the World Trade Center site in New York City has swept through the country like a summer storm, igniting all the usual and combustible pools of prejudice that define so much of the airwaves these days.

It is a controversy that can do irreparable harm to United States foreign policy and its struggle against Islamic extremism. For it punctures the image the United States was trying so hard to project: that America is a place where Muslims can freely worship and co-exist with other religions in peace and harmony; that Islam can coexist with modernity and tolerance. It gives strength to Osama bin Laden’s contention that the West is at war with Islam, and that it is the duty of every Muslim to resist.

There are enough Muslims who believe in the twisted lies that the CIA or the Jews were responsible for Sept. 11 without adding the unfortunate truth that there are widespread anti-Muslim elements in the United States. To oppose a mosque that is in the Sufi tradition of mysticism and tolerance, simply because it would be too close to the “sacred” Ground Zero is to equate all Muslims with terrorism — the same sort of lie that would blame it on the Jews. As it was, Muslims died in the World Trade Center along side their Christian, Jewish and secular colleagues.

George W. Bush, to his great credit, understood and tried hard to steer Americans away from this kind of blind prejudice, saying again and again that the United States was not fighting against the Muslim faith. President Barack Obama has joined that effort, coming down strongly — if a tad belatedly — in favor of the mosque.

The hero of the hour is New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg who memorably said: We do not honor the lives of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001 “by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights — and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

A villain is Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League who, in an extraordinary turn of logic, said we have to respect bigotry. He has positioned his once estimable organization against the mosque, turning against every tradition the Anti Defamation League has always represented. It gives the impression that a little defaming is OK as long as it’s against Muslims.

From Sarah Palin I expected a know-nothing objection to the mosque for that is the space she hopes to occupy. But from Newt Gingrich, with his deep knowledge of history, I expected more.

All this leaves moderate Muslims in the lurch. How can they say to their excitable kids that it’s not Islam itself that is under siege?