The controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic center at Ground Zero is being exploited by some to demonize Muslims and Islam and by others to label all those who believe the mosque would better be built elsewhere as denying religious freedom and bigotry.
It is a sign of the times -- the polarization that is taking over public discourse -- that an issue that should have been handled in a sensitive manner has become a political football.
Most distressing is the surfacing among certain public figures of outrageous comments about Islam, comments which run counter to everything America is about.
One such notable figure is Franklin Graham, the successor to his father Billy Graham's ministry. In his criticism of the mosque, he launches an all-out assault against Islam itself.
On August 18, the Rev. Graham told Time magazine: "President Bush and President Obama made great mistakes when they said Islam is a peaceful religion. It is not. There is no evidence in its history. It's a religion of hatred. It's a religion of war."
And more: "The goal of Islam is world domination. That's the goal. ... They will claim now that the World Trade Center property and everything within that area is now Islamic land...."
The Rev. Graham's scare tactics about Islam have not been limited to the mosque controversy. On August 19, he told CNN's John King that "the President's problem is that he was born a Muslim...." In April of this year he told Sally Quinn of The Washington Post, "that true Islam cannot be practiced in this country...."
Unfortunately, Graham's diatribes did not begin this year. Back in November, 2001, two months after 9/11, he said on MSNBC about the Islamic religion and its view of God that, "It's a different God and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion."
This kind of bigotry and stereotyping against a great world religion is contrary to everything that America stands for.
Yet in the current political climate, and in the ongoing debate over the proposed Islamic cultural center two blocks north of Ground Zero, an intensified level of anti-Muslim bigotry has surfaced in a variety of public forums. The Rev. Graham's remarks just scratch the surface of a deeply entrenched problem in our society of anti-Muslim scapegoating.
Several groups with extreme anti-Muslim agendas have launched public campaigns that have both sheltered and fueled this bigotry. One Florida-based group, for example, has plans to observe an "International Burn a Koran Day" on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The campaign is the latest tactic employed by an organization led by Pastor Terry Jones, author of the book Islam is the Devil.
What's more, there have been repeated instances where mosques around the country have become targets of anti-Muslim protests, hateful invective, stereotyping, and worse. We have counted more than a dozen instances in recent months where mosques have been targeted for protests and violence. On May 10, for example, a pipe bomb exploded at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Florida. In July, a fire at the Islamic Center of Marietta, Georgia, was blamed on arsonists. Other mosques have weathered protests where worshippers were greeted with messages that "Jesus Hates Muslims" and "Islam is a Lie."
We hope that all Americans, whatever their legitimate differences of opinion on the wisdom of building a mosque abutting Ground Zero, will reject this demonization of Islam.
We at ADL have been doing so during this controversy and long before, whether it was by our ads in The New York Times after 9/11 denouncing those who showed hatred toward Muslims after the terrorist attack or, more recently, our criticizing those who exploited the mosque controversy to stereotype all Muslims.
Public figures, and particularly religious figures, have a special responsibility to demonstrate sensitivity and respect. It is distressing that an individual who carries on the work of his father's ministry has seen fit to go in this direction. We hope the Rev. Graham will reconsider his approach to this issue.
What his comments reflect is the diminution of basic civil discourse in public life. If you don't agree with me 100 percent of the time, you're the enemy.
A healthy democracy requires a public space where people can disagree without turning it into a war.
Abraham H. Foxman is the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. His books include The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control and the forthcoming Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype (November 2010).