08/27/2010 01:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anti-Muslim Agitators Are Today's Know Nothings

The current xenophobia directed against Muslims in the U.S. is distressing. The issue is bigger than just the "Ground Zero Mosque." It is about the treatment of Muslims all over the country. It is about the core American principles of tolerance and religious freedom.

To be sure, the U.S. struggles with varying levels of intolerance on a regular basis. However, sometimes passions can elevate persecution of a certain group to an alarming level that constitutes an assault on American values. These feelings are often the result of substantial political and/or economic change, and countless groups have been victimized over time.

One example of such persecution was directed against Catholics in the mid-1800s. It seems hard to believe given their invaluable contributions to American society, but Catholics were once depicted by some as an insidious cancer that would irredeemably corrupt the nation.

The Know Nothing movement was rooted in nativist sentiment and it was virulently anti-Catholic, largely directed against the Irish and German immigrants who flooded into the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s. The term "Know Nothing" was a reference to the semi-secret societies out of which the movement grew -- if asked about the activities of these societies, members were supposed to reply, "I know nothing." [For a summary of the movement, see for example "The Politics of Impatience" (login required) or Wikipedia].

Know Nothings blamed Catholics for many of society's ills and warned that they were part of a papal plot to infiltrate the United States. Catholics were depicted as incapable of adopting American ideals such as republican democracy, social mobility, and public education. They were often the victims of violence and their churches were sometimes attacked, especially during riots in the mid-1850s.

Of course, the Know Nothings' fears about Catholics were groundless, and the political movement largely disappeared after 1860, leaving us only with the commonly used term. Their fears had widespread currency during the 1850s because massive social change and the accompanying dislocation welcomed a scapegoat. The spread of railroads, high unemployment, increased immigration, and intensifying conflict over slavery were some of the major contributors to the social turmoil that fueled anti-Catholic, nativist sentiment.

Today, the economic downturn, the changing role of the federal government, two wars, and fears of terrorism are responsible for the upheaval that is fueling anti-Islamic, nativist feelings in the U.S. Though the cause of this behavior can be explained, that does not make it acceptable. As a nation, we must focus on the challenges confronting us and collectively repudiate the political opportunists and fear mongers who demonize Muslims.

President Obama's recent equivocation on the Cordoba Initiative's plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero may be understandable with an election looming. However, this issue is not one that should be subject to political calculation. The right to build a place of worship is fundamental to the principle of religious freedom, and the planned mosque complies with applicable laws and zoning regulations.

Obama, and all Americans, should unequivocally support the equal treatment of mosques and just as strongly condemn the persecution of Muslims. We can all do so with the confidence that history will vindicate us, no matter what the current political mood may be.

The Know Nothings have been relegated to obscurity in part because their fears about Catholics were unfounded and the religious persecution they fomented was antithetical to American values. The same is true of those who fear the "Islamization" of America and who use this paranoia to justify religious persecution today. Their worries are as absurd as their behavior is un-American.

Over the last nine years, we have been somewhat successful in not conflating al-Qaeda and terrorism with Islam in general, but we are heading in the wrong direction. Let us not forget that hundreds of innocent Muslims were murdered on 9/11. Let us not fall into the trap of equating a handful of extremists with an entire group of people. Let us not forget who we are as a nation.

Though we are far from perfect, we always manage to overcome fear and suspicion, reaffirming our commitment to the cherished principle of tolerance that has made this country great. This spasm of xenophobia and intolerance will eventually pass, and those fueling it will be conferred to the dustbin of history like so many Know Nothings before them. This, I know.

What I do not know is how long it will last, how much damage will be done, and how many innocent lives will be affected. I can only hope that we all come to our senses sooner rather than later.

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