The latest plot against America, we’re told, is smoldering in the ashes of 9/11. A Muslim organization wants to build a “community center,” including a mosque, two blocks from the site of the fallen World Trade Center. Republicans and leaders of other faiths are rallying against the mosque, calling it a threat to American values. But the threat to our values isn’t coming from the mosque. It’s coming from those who want to stop it.
The stated mission of the organization behind the project, the Cordoba Initiative, is to build “interfaith tolerance and respect.” The center would include a library, gym, auditorium, and restaurant. Its purpose would be “promoting integration, tolerance of difference,” and “inter-community gatherings and cooperation.” The initiative’s chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has denounced church burnings in Muslim countries, rejected Islamic triumphalism over Christians and Jews, and proposed to reclaim Islam from violent radicals such as Osama Bin Laden.
Despite these assurances, a stream of politicians and religious leaders has come out against the mosque. On May 14, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called the project “particularly offensive” because “so many Muslim leaders have failed to speak out against radical Islam, against the attacks” of 9/11. Later, as paraphrased by the Associated Press, King said “ground zero may not be an appropriate spot for this or any proposed mosque.”
Over the next month, Republicans added new arguments. They said the mosque might end up being funded by radicals. They said Rauf hadn’t condemned Hamas. They said he had faulted U.S. policies for contributing to the 9/11 attacks. But their core position predated and superseded these arguments: Muslim worshippers, keep out.
On July 1, Quinnipiac University released a poll showing that New York city voters opposed the mosque. The question mentioned nothing about Hamas or sponsorship. It described the project as “a proposal by a Muslim group to build a Muslim mosque and cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero.” By a margin of 52 percent to 31 percent, respondents said they opposed the idea.
A week later, Rick Lazio, New York’s leading Republican candidate for governor, held a press conference to decry the project. He framed it as a threat to New Yorkers’ “personal security and safety.” Then he stood proudly beside Debra Burlingame, the co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America, as she accused Rauf of hatching the mosque plot “to bring people to Islam” and create “a Muslim-dominant America.” Burlingame said “creating an Islamic presence” near Ground Zero would serve as propaganda for “people who want to hurt this country.”
Three days after the Lazio-Burlingame press conference, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani joined the opposition. He charged that “it not only is a mosque that’s in exactly the wrong place, right at Ground Zero, but it’s a mosque supported by an imam who has a record of support for causes that were sympathetic with terrorism.” These were two distinct objections: Regardless of Rauf’s politics, there shouldn’t be “a mosque” at the site.
On July 20, Sarah Palin weighed in. “To build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks,” she wrote on her Facebook page. She went on to cite the arguments about Hamas and the project’s uncertain funding. But her core argument echoed Giuliani’s: Any mosque at Ground Zero was wrong. The next day, Newt Gingrich raised the ante: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” A week later, he added: “It is simply grotesque to erect a mosque at the site of the most visible and powerful symbol of the horrible consequences of radical Islamist ideology.”
In rejecting any mosque near Ground Zero, Republicans are in tune with public opinion. A Rasmussen survey released on July 22 asked adults nationwide, “Do you favor or oppose the building of a mosque near the 9/11 Ground Zero site in New York City?” They opposed it, 54 percent to 20 percent.
The anti-mosque movement isn’t confined to politicians. Several religious leaders have joined it. In May and June, opponents of the mosque plan posted a statement from “Hindu leader” Dr. Babu Suseelan. He declared:
60% of Islamic scriptures are political dealing with treatment of infidels, non believers and 31% is about Jihad, how to make the infidel submit to Islam through deceit and terror. … What is a Mosque? The Islamic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan [of Turkey] said it clearly: “Mosques are our barracks, the Domes are helmets, the minarets are bayonets and the faithful are soldiers.” … We should not allow a huge barrack (Mosque) where Imams can preach hatred and train soldiers who [have] no faith in our constitution or liberty.
On July 22, Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, lent Christian support to the assault:
I believe that putting a mosque at Ground Zero, or very close to Ground Zero, is unacceptable. … Even though the vast majority of Muslims reject that ideology and condemned their actions on Sept. 11, 2001, it still remains a fact that the people who perpetrated the 9/11 attack were Muslims and proclaimed they were doing what they were doing in the name of Islam. Given that fact, I believe that it is inappropriate for a mosque to be at Ground Zero. …
And on July 28, the Anti-Defamation League added a Jewish voice to the resistance. “Regardless” of the project’s funding or connections to radical ideology, said the ADL, “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.”
If the common thread among these polls, politicians, and religious leaders prevails—if we quash the proposed Islamic center simply because it’s Muslim—what will happen to our country? In the statements of the anti-mosque movement, we can already see where their argument leads us.
1. It justifies bigotry. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Abe Foxman, the ADL’s national director. When the New York Times asked him how the feelings of family members of 9/11 victims could justify the ADL’s opposition to the mosque, he replied, “Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational.” In the case of the 9/11 families, he argued, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”
2. It justifies confining religions to ghettos. Dr. Land, the Baptist official, said religious communities are entitled to “places of worship within reasonable distance of where they live. However, no religious community has an absolute right to have a place of worship wherever they choose, regardless of the community’s objections.”
3. It justifies double standards against minorities. While denouncing the mosque proposal as an assault on non-Muslims, Gingrich wrote:
Last month, police in Dearborn, Mich., which has a large Muslim population, arrested Christian missionaries for handing out copies of the Gospel of St. John on charges of “disturbing the peace.” They were doing so on a public street outside an Arab festival in a way that is completely permissible by law, but, of course, forbidden by sharia’s rules on proselytizing. This is a clear case of freedom of speech and the exercise of religious freedom being sacrificed in deference to sharia’s intolerance against the preaching of religions other than Islam.
So Muslims shouldn’t worship near Ground Zero, but when Christians proselytize in Muslim areas, that’s freedom of religion. And if Muslims get upset about that, it’s evidence of Muslim intolerance.
4. It threatens other faiths. Comparing 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, Land asked: “Do the followers of Shinto have a right to have a shrine in Honolulu? Yes. In close proximity to the USS Arizona? No.” He concluded that “it would be inappropriate to have a Japanese shrine in close proximity to the USS Arizona.” Islam, Shinto—who’s next?
5. It renounces pluralism. Again, don’t take my word for it. Read Gingrich’s words: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” That’s a straightforward message to illiberal Muslim regimes: If you won’t rise to our level, we’ll sink to yours.
6. It implies a global war on Islam. To rally Muslims against the United States, Bin Laden has repeatedly claimed we’re at war with Islam. President Bush, recognizing Bin Laden’s game, always exalted Islam as a peaceful religion and framed the U.S. response as a “war on terror,” not on Islam. Gingrich says Bush is wrong and Bin Laden is right. In his case against the mosque proposal, Gingrich wrote:
Some radical Islamists use terrorism as a tactic to impose sharia, but others use non-violent methods—a cultural, political, and legal jihad that seeks the same totalitarian goal even while claiming to repudiate violence. Thus, the term “war on terrorism” is far too narrow a framework in which to think about the war in which we are engaged against the radical Islamists.
The mosque proposal, according to Gingrich, is an act of “cultural aggression” on behalf of “an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” It’s “all about conquest and thus an assertion of Islamist triumphalism which we should not tolerate.” In short, violence is beside the point. We will now define Muslim aggression and conquest more broadly to include politics, law, and culture. And we’ll start by telling Muslims not to pray near our “sacred” ground.
I can’t think of a surer way to lose both our national soul and the struggle against terrorism. Yes, Mr. Gingrich and Ms. Palin, there’s a cultural-political offensive afoot to undermine our civilization. And you’re leading it. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: