Zero tolerance

Our view: Mosque controversy pits those who would inflame anti-Muslim anger for political gain against some of the nation's most fundamental freedoms

August 18, 2010

With the country fighting armed conflict overseas, the economy still foundering and national unemployment hovering near 10 percent, one would think candidates for public office in Maryland and elsewhere would have more substantive issues to discuss than the trumped-up controversy of whether an Islamic center and mosque should be built two blocks from Ground Zero.

Yet state Sen. Andy Harris, a Republican candidate in Maryland's First Congressional District, chose to release a written statement this week attacking the project as "blatantly disrespectful" and that Ground Zero would no longer be a place where the events of Sept. 11 could be remembered and the dead mourned "if this project is allowed to continue."

He is not alone. From former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the talking heads of Fox News, the far right has seized on the project in a blatant attempt to fuel anti-Islamic feelings in this country, lumping terrorists and religious extremists together with all Muslims. It is a cynical but familiar strategy of using the ghosts of the Sept. 11 attack to inflame and anger.

What they are banking on is that the principled, rational response to such fear-mongering and demagoguery — standing up for the U.S. Constitution, private property rights and Americans' fundamental right to worship in the religion of their choosing — will cause those who dare to oppose them to seem weak and indifferent to the devastating terrorist attack of nine years ago.

Initially, President Barack Obama rose to the challenge. Last week, he warned of the danger of linking all Muslims to terrorism and reminded his audience at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan that "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country." But one day later, he seem to backpedal, telling reporters he wasn't commenting on the "wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there."

In his press release, Senator Harris called this "thinking like a lawyer and not like an American." True, it was lawyerly in the sense that the president seemed to defend the project and then didn't. But if there is anything un-American to be found in this tempest in a minaret, it is the despicable efforts to vilify a religious minority for political gain.

Even some conservatives are distressed by just how great a distraction this contrived debate over a mosque in Manhattan (an island that already has 30 of them) has become. They fret that if Republican leaders are so willing to abandon First Amendment freedoms for political gain, minority voters are bound to worry over who might be targeted next.

Indeed, there is an ugliness to this incendiary clamor, a reflection perhaps of the dark mood of a nation suffering through a major economic recession's minuscule recovery. But fear and intolerance are ultimately of little use to anyone. As New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg noted in his defense of the project earlier this month, "political controversies come and go but our values and traditions endure."

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