Creep the Faith

The broadening backlash against American Islam.

Rick Lazio

Two months ago, Rick Lazio, the leading Republican candidate for governor of New York, challenged his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, to investigate a proposed Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero. When Cuomo replied that the issue was religious freedom, Lazio insisted that his concerns were strictly about who would fund the project and what its imam had said about 9/11. “It’s outrageous, honestly, that Andrew Cuomo is raising [the] issue of religion here,” Lazio told a TV interviewer. “This is about security.”

Last week, Lazio began running a new ad. It concluded with these words: “Call Andrew Cuomo and tell him a Ground Zero mosque is wrong.”

A Ground Zero mosque. Not a mosque funded by radicals. Not a mosque run by somebody who said something controversial about 9/11. Not a mosque that recruits jihadists. A mosque—any mosque—near Ground Zero is wrong.

This is the latest frontier in the expanding campaign against the mosque. The initial allegations about money and extremism have receded to the background. In their place, candidates around the country are drawing a bright, categorical line against an Islamic house of worship  near Ground Zero. It is a line based entirely on religion.

“Ground Zero is the wrong place for a mosque,” says Rick Scott, the Republican nominee for governor of Florida, in a TV ad. “The 9/11 site is hallowed ground, and it is too painful and divisive to build a mosque there,” says Roy Barnes, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia. “It is insensitive and disrespectful to locate a mosque/Islamic center at a site that was damaged on 9/11,” says Rep. John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois. * “The construction of a mosque near Ground Zero should not, and must not happen,” says Steve Chabot, the former Republican congressman running for his old seat in Ohio. “Building a mosque near Ground Zero is insensitive, an affront to the victims of 9/11, and it lacks respect for the general public’s feelings,” says Richard Hanna, a Republican candidate for Congress in upstate New York. Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican running for Congress, says President Obama “is wrong to offend the memories of the September 11th fallen by voicing support for building an Islamic mosque on Ground Zero.”

The GOP’s U.S. Senate candidates are nearly unanimous. Carly Fiorina of California, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Linda McMahon of Connecticut, and Len Britton of Vermont all emphasize the mosque’s location as their concern. “It is divisive and disrespectful to build a mosque next to the site where 3,000 innocent people were murdered at the hands of Islamic extremism,” says Marco Rubio, the party’s nominee in Florida. “It is disrespectful to the families who have lost loved ones on 9/11 to build a mosque on that sacred ground,” says Rob Portman, the nominee in Ohio. “It is provocative in the extreme to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero,” says the campaign of Pat Toomey, the nominee in Pennsylvania. “It is insensitive and inappropriate to build a mosque near the ground zero site,” says Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. “I do not support the building of a mosque at Ground Zero,” says Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana says “the prospect of a mosque right near this site of reverence and respect for lost loved ones from the attack shows a serious lack of sensitivity. In fact, the majority of the country is strongly opposed to building a mosque at the site of the most tragic terrorist attack on America.”

Vitter is right about the polls. In the latest survey, released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University, a majority of New York State voters, 53 percent to 39 percent, agrees that “because of the sensitivities of 9/11 relatives, Muslims should not be allowed to build the mosque near Ground Zero.” Yes, you read that correctly: A mosque should not be allowed. So when Republicans go around saying that “the general public’s feelings” and “the majority of the country” should govern the mosque dispute, they’re talking about a majority that’s willing to mess not just with the mosque, but with the Constitution.

And they’re flirting with something much more dangerous. In New York, a man was indicted Monday for allegedly slashing a taxi driver on Aug. 25 after finding out the driver was a Muslim. In Tennessee, FBI agents are investigating a suspicious fire, apparently set Friday night, that damaged construction equipment at the planned site of a local Islamic center. In Seattle, a man was arrested last week for allegedly punching a convenience store clerk in the head and telling him, “You’re not even American, you’re al-Qaida.” And last week, a brick was thrown at the window of an Islamic center in California. Outside the building, somebody posted a warning: “No Temple for the god of terrorism at Ground Zero.”

Ground Zero was just the beginning. The case against a mosque there has shifted from extremism to Islam. Now Republicans say their no-mosque rule extends only to Ground Zero, or three blocks from Ground Zero, or whatever exclusion zone the majority feels is appropriate. But the fire of enmity has already spread from terrorism to religion. I don’t think New York can contain it. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

Correction, Sept. 3, 2010: This aritcle originally identified Rep. John Shimkus as a congressman from Missouri. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)