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Jesse Larner Headshot

The "Ground Zero Mosque" and the War on Terror

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A few days ago, Bill O'Reilly announced on The View that the reason he opposed the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" is that "Muslims killed us on 9/11," prompting hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk off the show.

Goldberg's and Behar's outrage was very theatrical, suited to their public personae; but to my astonishment neither of them bothered to explain what was so terribly wrong with O'Reilly's typically smug statement. Neither did Keith Olbermann, who simply called O'Reilly an Islamophobe -- ceding the field to all the pugnacious right-wingers who will point out, correctly, that what O'Reilly said was true, and that only liberal pinheads would fail to acknowledge this.

So sure, it's true. But the central fallacy of the whole screaming match over Feisal Abdul Rauf and his mosque plans -- the fallacy that's been aired every day by the proud know-nothings of Fox News, the NY Post's opinion page, and their internet respondents -- is that a Muslim is a Muslim. They're all alike, you see, and if some are terrorists, than the others must be too, or must at least be pursuing the same anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-Western agenda; if not with violence, then with a sinister cultural offensive.

This is nonsense, of course. The mosque protesters might as well picket and disrupt all Quaker meetings in Manhattan until the Catholic Church honestly and effectively addresses its multiple pedophilia scandals. Both groups are Christian, right? What's the difference?

How many of these protesters know -- how many have made the slightest effort to find out -- that Rauf was a first-responder on 9/11, running to the site so that he could help pull victims from the rubble? That he has consistently and loudly condemned violent Islamic extremism, and worked to oppose it? That he was a longtime member of the 92nd Street Y, and that he is intentionally modeling his Islamic Community Center -- not primarily a mosque -- on open community space represented by this multicultural YMCA and by Jewish Community Centers, in which people from all backgrounds and religious beliefs are welcome to the facilities and can encounter each other in sporting and cultural pursuits, learn from each other?

Rauf has roots in the community. His plans for his community center were approved, 29-1, by the local community board whose members have known him for thirty years or more, whose kids have gone to school with his kids. He's not a stranger to them, and his work and his record support his good intentions. This is not some sinister trick, as many have suggested.

It's the demagogues who know exactly what they're doing in stirring up the ignorant and the hateful to oppose Rauf who are most chilling in their calculation. Newt Gingrich, possibly the most cynical and manipulative person on the planet, has said that the project would become an "icon of triumph" for radical Islamists. He knows better, but he just doesn't care what kind of slander he throws around on his path to power. Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio, who is always a bully in his political campaigns, would condemn the mosque every day during the primary season. I am delighted that this demagogic fool was humiliated by the unelectable Carl Paladino.

But what about the idea that if Rauf had any sensitivity, any concern for good relations between Muslims and others, he'd move the mosque voluntarily?

To do so would be to accept the contention that there's something wrong, something sinister, about his project, just because some ignorant people say that there is. It would be to accept the legitimacy of the argument that all Muslims somehow had something to do with 9/11, or benefited from it, or supported it, or are pleased with it. That Muslims are essentially different from the rest of us, and have no place in our pluralistic society.

It's not just that Rauf has a right to build his mosque, which he does. It's that if he doesn't build it -- if he's intimidated or deterred or dissuaded -- then the mob has won a victory that will be used as a precedent that encourages it to attack any other unpopular group in future, be it Mormons or atheists or Jews or gays or socialists or whomever is the disfavored flavor of the month. In standing up for his own rights, Rauf knows that he is also standing up for American values of pluralism and the social rights of everyone who plays within the political and constitutional rules of our society -- as Rauf does. He is doing us all an enormous service with his stubbornness, and at great personal cost: He and his wife, Daisy Khan, have received death threats.

But Rauf knows something else, too. He knows that radical Islam can only be defeated by moderate Islam. Radical Islam loves to paint America as a place implacably hostile to Muslims, a place that wishes to deny Muslims equal rights and dignity here and around the world. He knows that this propaganda is used ceaselessly in radical Islamic recruitment. And he knows that the best weapon against this propaganda, this recruitment, is an image of America as a place that welcomes and accepts law-abiding Muslims.

It is ironic that the anti-mosque protesters have greatly advanced the cause of radical Islam. They have done Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri an enormous favor. You can bet that their demonstrations and hateful statements are running 24/7 on al-Qaeda web TV. The protesters have undoubtedly brought young men and women who might otherwise have reserved judgment about America into the ranks of Islamic fanatics. It is more than plausible that the protesters' actions will eventually result in the deaths of Americans.

Whereas the worst fear of the worldwide organizers of violent Islam, those psychopaths hiding out in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Kenya, Kashmir, many other places around the world -- is the image of a New York Islamic center in which people of all faiths work and play and pray together with mutual respect. That is what destroys their propaganda. That is what they hate to see. And it is that -- in addition to the necessary military actions -- that will win the war on terror in the long term.

John Podhoretz, truly a know-nothing among know-nothings at the Post, recently wrote that the very possibility of a "Ground Zero mosque" was due to "the shameful dereliction of leadership that allowed the most important building site in American history to become a ludicrous testament to the ability of postmodern Americans to hamstring themselves and lose sight of what is most important."

We can hold any number of opinions about what kind of memorial should have been built at the site of the former World Trade Center. But Podhoretz has it dead wrong when he talks about what is "most important." In fact, a center like the one that Rauf is proposing would be a vindication of America, an affirmation of our enduring values, of what is "most important."

The mosque project is, in a way, the most perfectly American 9/11 memorial.