NEW YORK -- At a time when the US is mired in two lost wars, running a $1.4 trillion deficit, and trapped in economic stagnation, a bitter but trivial public controversy over a Muslim social center in downtown New York seems absurd.
But that's what we now have, and it's an ugly harbinger of the oncoming wave of religious bigotry and xenophobia that will mark this fall's elections.
We applaud two courageous men, President Barack Obama and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, for defending the Muslim center even at considerable political risk. As the president noted, choosing the downtown sit may not have been wise, but it was the absolute right of its proponents, a right which we as Americans must defend at all costs.
Republicans, neocons and assorted racists are having a field day promoting hatred of Islam. They see it as a golden opportunity to revive charges that the president is a closet Muslim. Newt Gingrich recently kicked off his campaign for the presidency by issuing a disgusting jeremiad about the supposed dangers of Islam to the nation.
Now, the massed myrmidons of the hard right are wailing that the prayer center - which is actually interfaith - somehow violates the profound sanctity of the 9/11 "holy ground."
I don't known what they think about the massage parlors, escort services and bars that also abut this lower Manhattan "holy ground."
What we are seeing is an eruption of cultivated anti-Muslim hatred that has been building up for the past nine years since 9/11. Openly attacking Muslims has become the last acceptable public prejudice.
Islamophobia has become the mantra of the right, not only in the US, but across Europe.
I saw the first signs of Islamophobia fifteen years ago when I interviewed Jean Marie Le Pen, France's far right, Vichyite leader. "Muslims are invading Europe," he told me. "They are spreading crime and disease. We must drive them out."
Today, we witness Islamophobia in normally sensible, level-headed nations like Denmark, Holland, Britain, Belgium, France and Switzerland.
Hatred and fear of Muslims has become as much a central creed of the right's thinking as was rightwing hatred and fear-mongering about Jews in 1930's Europe. Simply replace the word "Muslim" with "Jews" in today's anti-Islamic screeds and the evil flavor of the 1930's is revived.
A primary reason for this carefully cultivated anti-Muslim hysteria lies with the Bush administration, which issued to the public a stream of disinformation and untruths about 9/11.
The mostly Saudi suicide team that attacked New York and Washington on 9/11 made clear they were doing so for two primary reasons: 1. to punish the US for supporting Israel's repression of the Palestinians; 2. to protest what they called US "occupation" of Saudi Arabia and domination of the Mideast. Their bloody attack was a political act.
Nine days before 9/11, I wrote in a newspaper article, "America's strategic and economic interests in the Muslim world are being threatened by the agony in Palestine, which inevitably invites terrorist attacks against US citizens and property."
But the Bush administration, which ardently supported Israel and garrisoned Saudi Arabia, would not admit this, nor that it had been caught asleep on guard duty by 9/11.
The White House immediately came up with the fable that Muslim fanatics had staged the attack because of their hatred for "our way of life," as Bush claimed, hatred of American culture and, sotto voce, Christianity.
A Koran belonging to one of the attackers was even found in the burning debris of the World Trade Center, miraculously intact. So the massacre became a religious attack. Bush did not misspeak when he proclaimed a "crusade" to avenge 9/11.
America had been attacked by Islam. Christian fundamentalist groups, some 44% of registered Republican voters, were quick to propagate this canard, with lurid claims about Muslims seeking to impose a caliphate over the United States. The internet teems with such dangerous nonsense. Islam became America's new enemy of choice
"Muslims under our mattresses" have replaced "Reds under our beds" of the 1950's.
Few politicians or media have dared tell Americans the truth about the real cause of 9/11. Instead, we have had a steady outpouring of junk psychological clap trap about how Islam is a sick religion; how Muslims are innately violent; and how "Islamofascism" supposedly menaces America.
The dragon teeth of religious hatred planted by the Bush administration, and nurtured by the neocons and religious far right, are blooming.
Islam had no more to do with 9/11 than Christianity did with World War II. The men who staged the attacks were Muslims, and spoke in its idiom, as most Muslims do, but their inspiration for this awful act was punishing the US for Palestine, overthrowing Mideast governments, expropriating resources, and imposing brutal tyrannies on the Muslim world.
So President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg (my mayor, I am proud to say) did exactly the right thing by reminding their misled countrymen of our basic right of religious freedom and tolerance.