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At Ground Zero, a blowup over a mosque

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Charles C. Haynes
June 5, 2010

Houston talk-show host Michael Perry couldn’t contain himself. When a listener named Tony called in May 26 to defend a plan to build an Islamic center near New York City’s 9/11 ground zero, Perry exploded.


“No, no, Tony, you can’t build a mosque at the site of 9/11. … And I’ll tell you this—if you do build a mosque, I hope somebody blows it up … I hope the mosque isn’t built, and if it is, I hope it’s blown up, and I mean that.”


Perry later backed away from his incendiary rhetoric (after a Muslim civil rights group complained to the FCC), writing on his blog that he shouldn’t have said, “I hope somebody blows it up.” But he remains against the mosque because it’s “spitting in the face of those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack.”


Perry’s heated exchange with Tony about the fate of a future mosque came two weeks after the bombing of an actual mosque in Jacksonville, Fla. Fortunately, the 60 worshipers escaped unharmed.


Meanwhile in New York City, the Community Board in lower Manhattan approved a plan to build the Islamic center two blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood.


Pamela Geller, leader of a group called “Stop Islamization of America,” testified against the proposal. During a recent speech to a Tea Party convention in Tennessee, she described the center as “a shrine to the ideology that inspired 9/11.”


New York Tea Party leader Mark Williams has also weighed in with a no-holds-barred condemnation of Islam, calling the center a monument to the 9/11 terrorists for the worship of their “monkey-god.” (He later apologized to Hindus for confusing Allah with a Hindu deity.)


Williams has had harsh words for proponents of the center, especially Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. On his blog, Williams described Stringer as “a Jewish Uncle Tom who would have turned rat on Anne Frank for the price of an approving glance from Hitler.”


Lost in this haze of hatemongering is the legitimate disagreement over wisdom of a plan for the 13-story Islamic center.


Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who leads the effort, contends that the center with facilities open to all faiths will help promote interfaith understanding and encourage integration of Muslims into American society.


But some Muslim Americans see it differently. M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, believes the proposal is well-intentioned but misguided.


“The site represents Ground Zero in America’s war against radical Islamists who seek to destroy the American way of life,” he wrote in the New York Post. “It is not ground zero of a cultural exchange.”


Geller and her supporters, however, aren’t interested in having a civil exchange about appropriate development near the 9/11 site. They reject any place for Islam in America. Calling Islam “the religion of barbarism” that “inspired Hitler and the Nazis,” Geller sees the war on terrorism as a fight against Islam itself.


Islam is not the first religion to confront wholesale condemnation in the United States. Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was seen as the enemy by many Protestant Americans, who often called it the “Whore of Babylon.”


In the days before talk shows and blogs, anti-Catholic forces used pamphlets, newspapers and books to disseminate propaganda demonizing the Catholic Church as a threat to American democracy and freedom.


Though the historical and sociological reasons for anti-Catholicism 100 years ago differ greatly from the causes of prejudice against Islam today, attempts to marginalize both religions have striking similarities. Just as Catholics were once feared as “un-American” followers of a “foreign prince,” so now are Muslims often targets of those who see adherence to Islam as incompatible with American freedom.


Then, as now, words of hate and ignorance can sometimes inspire acts of violence. Widespread public acceptance of lies about Catholicism led a mob of Protestants in Charlestown, Mass., to burn a convent to the ground in 1834—an attack that went unpunished. According to one historian, the destruction of the convent “initiated a wave of shootings, hangings and burnings that continued to the 1860s.”


Surely we are better than that now. Although extreme voices poison the airwaves and the Internet, I’m convinced that most Americans reject venomous condemnations of an entire religion as unfair and unjust.


And I can’t help but believe that the vast majority of Americans are willing to stand up for their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens by protecting their right to worship openly and freely without fear of intimidation or violence.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at theNewseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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