07/23/2010 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Newt Gingrich Is Wrong on Ground Zero Mosque

Newt Gingrich has taken what might be termed an "interesting" approach in opposing the construction of the Islamic building which people are trying to erect down the block from Ground Zero. I refer to it as an Islamic building because the ongoing fight about whether it is a mosque or a cultural center is irrelevant. Typically, if you are in favor of the building's construction, you refer to it as the latter and if opposed to it, as the former.

Personally, I think that ultimately it's a reasonable, if not wise, project, although I think the timing and the process stink. This should not be about the assertion of religious right but about the building of consensus. While those who favor construction clearly have rights on their side, they seem to be completely tone-deaf regarding the feelings of those who are opposed.

It's simply not true that all who oppose this building hate Muslims, any more than it is true that all those who oppose Israeli policy are anti-Semites. Sadly, those who support the building seem to appreciate the second claim, but not the first. But this is not about my response to the proposed mosque/cultural center, it's about Newt's. And it's about why he's wrong -- not entirely, but largely.

Twenty percent of Gingrich's response is an intelligent critique of the American Muslim community's inability to engage in appropriate self-critique, and their failure to champion the cause of freedom of religious expression, not only in America but in the world and for all religions. Another 60 percent is ridiculous and erroneous analyses of the facts related to this particular issue, and the last 20 percent is rage -- this is Newt Gingrich's approach to why the mosque at Ground Zero ought not to be built. His position is actually proof that no matter how smart someone may be (and Newt Gingrich is very smart), it's no guarantee that his or her stance on any given issue will be equally smart.

Gingrich's claim that there should be no mosque at Ground Zero "as long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia" is inane unless one assumes two things: first, that we should now use Saudi Arabia as our benchmark for what is appropriate as far as freedom of religious expression and hold that unless they are as good as we are, we need not be as good as we have traditionally been; and second, that this is a Saudi project led by people who could change the Saudi position on religious freedom but have failed to do so.

The first assumption should embarrass anyone proud of America's history of religious freedom, being second to none and never contingent on the behavior of other nations. I am not looking for parity with Saudi Arabia, and I can't imagine why any American would settle for that. We should be proud that we are arguably the best nation in the world on religious freedom, not proud to be equal to, or slightly better than, some other nation doing a lousy job, as Gingrich's approach would have us be.

His second assumption is simply unfounded. There is no question that the funding of this project should be more transparent than it is, but to suggest that it is a Saudi project or that its supporters could change Saudi policy and should be punished for not doing so is simply absurd.

As to the history of Cordoba, Mr. Gingrich is partially correct. Life under medieval Muslim rulers was no picnic for Jews and Christians and would certainly not pass any test of American constitutionality -- not even close. But it's also true that life under Medieval Islam was far better for Jews and Christians than life had been for Jews and Muslims living under Christian rule.

So if Gingrich wants to remind us of the past sins of one religious community, he ought to remind us of them all. Failing that, his selective reading of history does sound suspicious, even to those of us who are tired of all questions about Islam being met with the cry of "Islamophobe."

Newt Gingrich may be right that building any Islamic structure that close to Ground Zero is bad idea, at least for now. But his arguments for that position are at least as bad as the worst ones which favor its construction. We need to think this one out together, not compare the best of whatever tradition we hold dear to the worst of whichever one we oppose.