The Not-at-Ground Zero Mosque Will Define U.S.-Muslim Relations for the Next Decade

08/23/2010 03:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, I argued that Newt Gingrich is wilfully and shamelessly putting America's security at considerable risk by fanning the flames of ignorance and intolerance. The former House Speaker recently compared the plans to build a mosque and community center two blocks from ground zero to the Nazis protesting next to the Holocaust museum. Such vitriol, I wrote, plays directly into the hands of al-Qaeda and their extremist allies, while stirring the already-fragile domestic terror threat. Uninterested in separating fact from fiction, and incapable of placing principle over politics, Gingrich, Palin, and others are misleading and misinforming the American public--piloting their supporters on a path to exacting irreparable damage to the social fabric of the United States. In fact, in yesterday's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof inked an identical argument, furthering the analogy by likening Sarah Palin's views towards the community center to those of Osama bin Laden. He wrote:

"It's striking that many American Republicans share with Al Qaeda the view that the West and the Islamic world are caught inevitably in a "clash of civilizations." Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who recruits jihadis from his lair in Yemen, tells the world's English-speaking Muslims that America is at war against Islam. You can bet that Mr. Awlaki will use the opposition to the community center and mosque to try to recruit more terrorists."

Moreover, Conservative Republicans peddling into the hands of al-Qaeda are also creating false dichotomies that force division, catering to the growing prejudice of Americans towards Muslims and Islam. While there has been much discussion trying to bifurcate the constitutional right of religious freedom and that of offending ones sensibilities with regard to the proposed mosque and cultural center, "This is a distinction without a difference," explained Peter Beinart of the New America Foundation yesterday on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS. "If you're saying people have the right but they shouldn't take advantage of that right, in fact it seems to me you're denying them that right." Beinart's intellectual opponent, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, rather absurdly argued that he would be in support of the effort if the center were a place sexual acceptance. "If we have a place where lesbian and gay Muslims feel comfortable, I would feel much better because of the treatment of lesbian and gays in many Islamic countries." This is the kind of incoherent and ill-conceived opposition standing in the way of quite possibly the largest domestic effort to forge better relations between American Muslims and their neighbours.

In response to my original article condemning Gingrich, I received a very thoughtful and insightful email from one of my readers. She eloquently conveyed her personal connection to 9/11; for she herself was at the World Trade Center, and had witnessed the first plane explode. "I understand how raw that wound is for so many people," she wrote. "And yet, I do not know how that wound can ever fully heal if we are determined to condemn an entire people for the acts of a few, and not commit to move forward to mutual understanding and reconciliation." Such voices of pluralism and peace from those who were intimately affected are crucial to this discussion, for even a coalition formed by family members who lost loved ones on 9/11 wish to turn the tides of intolerance and misunderstanding, and are in full support of building this mosque and cultural center. This is a powerful statement, and we should drown out the non-debate over religious freedom and address the 'sensitivity' question by amplifying the voices of those who were truly at the heart of the horrors on September 11th. Perhaps through a more careful and nuanced analysis, we will realize that those who have lost the most nearly a decade ago are those who are the strongest advocates for bridging the American-Muslim divide.

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