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?
Two wars in Muslim countries with the inevitable cost to civilian life, no matter what the justification, have taken their toll. From a Muslim point of view, Muslims struggling to be free in the Kashmir are once again being brutalized by the Indian army — giving strength to the all-to-prevalent Pakistani point of view that terrorism in Kashmir is legitimate resistance.
The Caucuses have been beaten up and beaten down by Russia, Uighurs in western China are suppressed by the Chinese, and of course in the great grand daddy conflict of them all, Palestinians still languish under Israeli occupation. Even Muslims who are Israeli citizens are discriminated against.
In Europe, once-tolerant countries are becoming less so as they tie themselves up in knots discussing and making laws about what Muslim women should wear. Even Switzerland, with its long tradition of tolerance and neutrality, has taken sides by banning minarets from their storied countryside.
And now the United States, founded on the desire of people to follow their own religious practices as they please; where there were never European-type restrictions on places of worship, even in the United States moderate Muslims are being told where they can’t pray because their mosque would be a symbol of victory for terrorists.
Of course many of these Muslim fears are exaggerated. But there is enough truth in them for terrorist recruiters to gain converts. And now Muslim Americans join the list of Muslims who are discriminated against. There are too many indications that, in the years since Spet. 11, the war on terrorism is morphing into anti-Islamism. And for the Anti Defamation League to lend credence to these charges is nothing short of a tragedy.
If American citizens are driven from a place of worship because it happens to be a few blocks from Ground Zero it will forever be a monument to bigotry against every thing this country is supposed to stand for.