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Michael Keegan Headshot

Forget the Pastor: Let's Talk About the Extremists to Worry About

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Yesterday, the extremist pastor of a tiny fringe group in Florida announced that he would cancel what had already become a wildly offensive but also wildly successful publicity stunt involving burning copies of the Koran. It's a relief that the world will not be exposed to endless news feeds of fringe extremists burning religious texts on the anniversary of September 11th. Muslim bashing and book burning is nothing new, but what was especially troubling about this stunt is that it showed just how far off base our national conversation about religious tolerance has slid...and just how much power the Right's anti-Muslim message has over the national media.

In the weeks after September 11th, 2001, there was a tremendous amount of understandable anxiety in the air. Not only was fear of another attack very real, but there was a real danger that the rage justly directed at al Qaeda could overflow into bigotry directed at Muslim Americans.

To be sure, there were instances of ugly rhetoric and inexcusable violence against the Muslim community, but our nation's leaders -- Democrat and Republican alike -- made it perfectly clear that attacking Muslims and their faith was inappropriate and unacceptable. Even as the unity and bipartisan patriotism that immediately followed the attacks evaporated, there were still some lines that politicians wouldn't cross. President Bush deserves all the criticism he got for ginning up fear to push through his destructive agenda, but even he remained steadfast in his belief that Muslim Americans were fully welcome in our civic life.

So much for uncrossable lines.

The month leading up to the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks has been dominated by a callow and opportunistic debate. This debate -- ostensibly about the rights of American Muslims to build a community center a few blocks from Ground Zero -- is really about the rights of Muslim Americans to be just that: both Muslim and American. And it's ultimately about the strength of our allegiance to one of the best, and sometimes the most difficult, of our American values: the conviction that this country belongs equally to all its citizens, not just those in the ethnic, religious, or political majority.

The campaign against the Park51 community center has succeeded in taking strains of extremist Islamophobia and making them mainstream. The "controversy" was concocted by virulently anti-Islamic blogger Pamela Geller and brought to national attention by mainstream conservatives, most notably Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, hoping to ride the scandal to November. Dozens of political leaders jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon; the complete silence of many others spoke volumes.

It is this careful mainstreaming of Islamophobia that has allowed a small time, extremist Florida pastor's planned Koran-burning to become a national event with international implications. Terry Jones got his 15 minutes even though his Gainesville church has only 50 members. His anti-Islam and anti-gay crusading had previously isolated him as an extremist. But this week, his planned "Burn a Koran Day" drew international attention and pleas from President Obama, Sec. Robert Gates, and Gen. David Petraeus urging him to stand down lest he put our troops in danger and harm the war effort.

Some anti-Park51 crusaders, even Sarah Palin, denounced Jones' dangerous publicity stunt. But the fact is that his actions would attract little attention, and do little harm, if they weren't taking place in the context of widespread and loud Islamophobia encouraged and implicitly condoned by prominent political leaders. Leaders such as Palin could pretend to be tolerant by denouncing Jones' clear extremism, while all the while continuing to push subtler, more pervasive strains of Islamophobia. The suggestion, made by Palin, John Boehner, and by Jones himself that the Koran-burning event and the building of the Islamic Community Center had some moral equivalence is treacherous indeed, implying that somehow the practice of Islam is itself an offensive act. It's this sort of insidious notion -- passed off as a legitimate argument -- that creates the growing level of distrust of Muslims in our society.

While Jones' event has been called off, Pamela Geller still plans to insult the memory of Sept. 11 by holding an anti-Islam march near Ground Zero. Like Jones, she deserves to be marginalized and ignored. Yet instead, her rally has attracted prominent national figures including former UN Ambassador John Bolton and omnipresent blogger Andrew Breitbart -- and, of course, plenty of media attention.

The national leaders who have fueled this zealous mistrust of Muslims, and worked toward making Islamophobia a legitimate political position, have put our troops in harm's way, irreparably injured the war effort that many of them were eager to start, and twisted American values into something very ugly.

The few leaders who have uncompromisingly stood up against what is momentarily popular and for what is unquestionably right -- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, General Petraeus, numerous religious leaders -- deserve praise. But it is disturbing that they are so few and far between.

To exploit the memory of the Sept. 11 attacks for political gain isn't just distasteful; it's destructive to the values that bring us together. Political differences are understandable, and democracy requires a thick skin. But assertions that a person, because of his or her religion, race, gender or sexual orientation, can't be fully American are corrosive to a fair and free society. When politicians sacrifice that principle, the vision of America they create is cynical and ultimately very harmful.