Kevin Hollinshead, Columnist
Ideology: Progressive | Writing from: Fort Collins, CO

Nine days after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, President George W. Bush used part of his address to the nation to note that while radical Muslims had the blood of almost 3,000 people on their hands, Islam itself was not to blame.

“We respect your faith,” Bush told Muslims. “It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

Almost nine years later, it appears Bush’s message hasn’t really sunken in yet. The last couple weeks have seen an ugly national debate about the building of a major Islamic center about two blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Many Americans, especially those on the political right, have condemned the plans for a $100-million community center with the mission of promoting a restoration of “the atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect that we have longed for since Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony and prosperity eight hundred years ago.”

Sarah Palin described the plans as a “stab … in the heart” and called on Muslims to “refudiate” them (whatever the hell that means). The National Republican Trust Political Action Committee said in TV ads that the building was intended “to celebrate [the] murder of 3,000 Americans.” The Anti-Defamation League inexplicably hopped on the xenophobic bandwagon (you read that correctly), stating that the mosque should not be built “in the shadow” of the World Trade Center, because it would “cause victims more pain.”

Then former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jumped in, arguing that, “there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” Newt’s impeccable logic is based upon what Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen described as “the schoolyard doctrine of tit for tat.” The fact that Saudi Arabia isn’t accommodating of its Christian and Jewish residents doesn’t mean we’re required to treat Muslims in a similar way. The First Amendment of our Constitution embodies that notion.

Gingrich is also leading the charge of some particularly paranoid folks in interpreting the name of the center as an announcement that the scary Muslims intend to impose Sharia (Islamic) law on the U.S:

The true intentions of [project chairman Faisal Abdul] Rauf are also revealed by the name initially proposed for the Ground Zero mosque –”Cordoba House” — which is named for a city in Spain where a conquering Muslim army replaced a church with a mosque. This name is a very direct historical indication that the Ground Zero mosque is all about conquest and thus an assertion of Islamist triumphalism which we should not tolerate.

That’s right, the center is part of a secret plot to destroy the America we know and love, and replace it with a new oppressive Muslim state. Oh. My. God.

Thankfully, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission ignored this fact in voting 9-0 on Tuesday to allow the building of the center to commence. So too did Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called the proposed mosque “as important a test of separation of church and state as any we may see in our lifetime.”

Could Rauf have avoided controversy by building the center elsewhere? Perhaps, but he’s hardly the first person to build a mosque in New York. This center will ultimately help the U.S. recover from the wounds of 9/11. Letting American values such as religious freedom triumph over paranoia facilitates healing and emboldens us all. Some victims’ families are understandably uneasy about the proposed mosque, but allowing Islamophobic scare tactics dictate our interpretation of the First Amendment would mean “letting the terrorists win,” to borrow a popular Bush-era Republican phrase.

Muslims were among those who perished during the attacks, along with people from just about every political and religious stripe; this is something we should not forget when suggesting limiting the rights of a polarizing minority group. As the Rev. Nathan Baxter, dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, said shortly after the attacks: “Evil does not wear a turban, a tunic, a yarmulke, or a cross. Evil wears the garment of a human heart, a garment woven from the threads of hate and fear.”

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