Don't look now but the mosque at Ground Zero is the Trojan horse that Osama bin Laden has been dreaming of in his cave somewhere in the Hindu Kush. Gary Berntsen, the tough-as-nails former CIA operative running to unseat Senator Chuck Schumer in New York, tells me al Qaeda and its affiliates are set to infiltrate the mosque before it has been built.
"This is not about religious freedom: it is a beachhead by foreign elements cloaked in a religious institution," Berntsen said in reply to my question as to whether he thinks the U.S. Constitution protects the would-be mosque in any way. He sounded dire in his predictions: "They will succeed in opening it, shielding themselves with our Constitution and it will become a magnet for militancy. It will be a proud outpost for militancy steps away from Ground Zero."
Berntsen earlier told a New York newspaper, the Albany Times-Union, that al Qaeda would try to infiltrate the mosque and that it should be built somewhere else -- a block or two away -- but not within "eyesight" of Ground Zero.
Berntsen, a decorated public servant who ran our spy agency's failed attempt to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora from his base at Bagram Air Field in 2001, told me that the current head of the mosque project Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has "associations" with an Iranian diplomat formerly posted in New York who is "suspected in the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction."
He also blasted Rauf for what he said were his ties to the Turkish humanitarian mission to Gaza whose boat the Israeli military boarded in late May in a bloody showdown. Berntsen's allegations are unproven and possibly reckless. Fareed Zakaria -- who vowed to return a $10,000 award from a leading mosque opponent, the Anti Defamation League (A.D.L.,) over the weekend - says Imam Rauf offers an interpretation of Islam that most Americans can admire. He insists that Rauf sees America as a "peaceful, tolerant and pluralistic state."
In 2001, Rauf, an American citizen, condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center, but added in a 60 Minutes interview that the U.S. was "an accessory to the crime that happened" because "we have been (an) accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world."
Berntsen's said the mosque would "provide cover for hundreds of young men not normally in the downtown Manhattan area -- just to hang out."
But the legal barriers to stopping the mosque, which has already gained local government approval, are formidable. The First Amendment of the Constitution states that U.S. government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." The same amendment also protects the right of free assembly.
Indeed, Americans who value their freedom should listen closely to the echoes of fear resounding from coast to coast this summer. I recall hearing similar warnings about the "other" falling from the lips of the notorious Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans in the 1990s.
On Monday morning on the MSNBC cable station, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino said in an interview that "Cordoba" means "triumph and conquest."
Berntsen is wrong to stoke fear, but Paladino's blind critique of "Cordoba" turns history upside down. Compared to Moorish Spain in the 9th and 10th Centuries A.D., Charlemagne's European experiment was an abysmal failure driven by greed and warmongering crusaders.
In Europe's darkest days, Christian Visigoths decreed that "The King will tolerate no one in his kingdom who is not Catholic." By contrast, in Andalusian Spain, ancient Islam outpaced Christianity in the fields of mathematics, science, and writing. Andalusian Jews, inhabitants of the peninsula since well-before the time of Christ, welcomed and prospered in the early years of the Moorish conquest. Compared to the later years of the Catholic-led Spanish Inquisition, which banned Judaism and Islam outright, they breathed easy and lived well.
An expansion of the Andalusian Islamic empire in Europe began during the rule of the Cordoban Caliph Abd al-Rahman. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed son of Prince Mohammad and a Frankish slave ascended the throne at the age of twenty-two in 912 A.D.. He ruled for a half-century marked by prosperity and religious freedom - in an era when forced conversion was virtually unheard of.
Historians still marvel at the emphasis placed by the Andalusian Caliphate on the need for public education. Cordoba's seventy libraries had nothing of comparative size or value anywhere in the western world. The main library alone had some 400,000 volumes. By comparison, a leading abbey in Switzerland, which boasted one of the most literate communities of monks in Europe, had a mere six hundred books.
Andalusian Spain was far more than a footnote in European history: Its scholarship and economic success helped spark the Renaissance.
Berntsen is an admirable character who lambasted George W. Bush for not nailing Osama bin Laden when he had the chance at Tora Bora, but he has presented no "smoking gun" of any al Qaeda ties or interests in the Ground Zero mosque. He says that "They (Islamic extremists) are using the West's respect and tolerance for all religions against us."
It is appropriate, however, to ask whether the views of mosque opponents like Berntsen and Paladino can be said to embody the "tolerance" that sets this nation apart from all others.
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