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A Time for Tolerance: Pushing Back on Hate-filled Rhetoric Around the "Ground Zero Mosque"

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America treasures the relationship we have with our many Muslim friends, and we respect the vibrant faith of Islam, which inspires countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity, and morality. This year, may Eid also be a time in which we recognize the values of progress, pluralism and acceptance that bind us together as a Nation and a global community. By working together to advance mutual understanding, we point the way to a brighter future for all.

When President George W. Bush said those words to mark 2002's Eid al-Fitr, I agreed with him. I still do. But as the controversy surrounding the plan to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan continues to intensify along political and religious lines, our national discussion increasingly points the way to a much dimmer future.

I have spent my career fighting for religious freedom and combating discrimination at home and abroad, first at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and now at Human Rights First. Over the years, I've sat in the same room with countless foreign government officials and religious leaders and asked them to condemn violence and other human rights abuses fueled by discrimination and hatred. And no matter where I was -- in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Pakistan or France -- the American example of religious freedom, tolerance and inclusion -- while not perfect -- strengthened my belief that those values are universal and promoting them benefits all of us.

I have found that the vast majority of Americans cherish these values. On many occasions, leaders from all denominations have worked hand in hand to strengthen religious freedom at home and advance it abroad. Today's challenges present yet another opportunity for these leaders to come together and demonstrate that the values that unite us are far more powerful than the fears that divide us.

It won't be easy. Just this week, a cab driver in New York City was stabbed after the perpetrator asked if he was a Muslim. A Florida church is sponsoring a national "Burn a Koran Day" on September 11. Mosques planned for construction in Tennessee, Wisconsin, California and Florida have been challenged by Americans claiming that Islam is not a religion or that Muslims are inherently violent and at odds with U.S. values. Sponsors of the Park51 project are being asked to forego their constitutional rights because many believe an Islamic center has no place in the same neighborhood as the site of the 9/11 tragedy.

Genuine discourse about the propriety of the mosque is not unexpected. After all, open discussion and honest disagreement are part of the American fabric. But at this critical moment in time, all of us need to speak up and speak out to reject stereotypes and prejudices that lead to exclusion and even violence if we are serious about securing religious freedom and confronting hatred at home and abroad. We must defend that principle because it is what makes us different from our enemies.

This week at Gracie Mansion, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it eloquently. He noted:

(I)f we say that a mosque and community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom. We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims. We would send a signal around the world that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen. And we would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam. Islam did not attack the World Trade Center -- al Qaeda did. To implicate all of Islam for the actions of a few who twisted a great religion is unfair and un-American.

Mayor Bloomberg's predictions are not rhetoric. They are reality. National Public Radio reported earlier this week that extremists are using the mosque debate and other events targeting Muslims as evidence of America's "war on Islam" -- evidence they are hoping will help them recruit young Muslims who visit jihadi chat rooms or frequent radical Islamic Web sites.

Vilification of Islam and Muslims harms our security efforts. Local and national law enforcement need to work together with all communities -- including American Muslims -- to protect the homeland. Our men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan need to work with local authorities and Muslim populations to form a more peaceful path forward, one in which conflict is addressed through a rule of law grounded in equality and protection of fundamental freedoms.

To date, the decision makers with power to influence the construction of the mosque in Lower Manhattan have done their best to uphold these ideas. They have stood up for religious freedom, inclusion and tolerance. They have upheld the Constitutional rights that make our nation great.

Now it's our turn.

It's time to put this debate back on course and recognize that hate-filled rhetoric, violence and intolerance hurt nobody but us. It does not keep us safe. It does not reflect our values. It does nothing but weaken our resilience as a nation and our position as an international example in the fight to defend the rights of all people -- regardless of their race, religion, nationality, sexuality or political opinion.

Earlier this month as he appeared on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, former Bush and Reagan administration adviser Ken Adelman noted that "the United States should stick with its values of tolerance and understanding... " He then added that the he was "a little disappointed" that former President George W. Bush -- whose remarks I quoted at the beginning of this piece -- has not come out to give voice to the same ideals he so eloquently outlined in 2002. I agree. More of that kind of leadership from those who haven't spoken out already is what the nation needs now to put us back on the right track.