Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim clergyman who wants to build a cultural center and prayer room two blocks north of Ground Zero, has repeatedly denounced Islamist terrorism. He admonishes members of his congregation to be, in his words, "both good Americans and good Muslims." He's not an ally of Osama bin Laden; he's an adversary.
Still, it was predictable that some New Yorkers who lost loved ones on 9/11 would object to building a Muslim institution so near the site of their tragedy. They're entitled to their feelings, and a cultural center that hopes to bridge gaps among Muslims, Christians and Jews needs to take those feelings into account. But they're not entitled to make their feelings a basis for discriminatory government action.
The controversy extends far beyond the question of whether a mosque should be built so near Ground Zero. Movements to deny Muslims the right to build houses of worship have sprung up all over the country – from Staten Island, N.Y., to Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Temecula, Calif., as well. (Temecula is 2,407 miles from Ground Zero.)
And they're being abetted by politicians a long way from New York – including two who may run for president in 2012 – who have seized the opportunity to declare themselves defenders of Western civilization against militant Islam.
First came former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who called the planned mosque in New York "a stab in the heart" and demanded that "peaceful Muslims" prove their good intentions by agreeing with her. Then came former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who managed to make Palin sound like a moderate. Gingrich said the Manhattan mosque was a beachhead in a much more dangerous war. "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization," he wrote.
Islamists, Gingrich warned, want to impose Muslim religious law, or Sharia, on the entire world, including the United States. As his main example, he cited a 2009 New Jersey trial in which a Muslim man accused of assaulting his wife claimed his actions were allowed under Sharia. Amazingly, a lower court judge accepted that defense; an appeals court reversed the decision. A "cultural-political offensive"? Sounds more like a long-shot argument by one criminal defendant and a dumb decision by one lower-court judge. If that's Gingrich's best case, Judeo-Christian civilization has nothing to fear.
Just in case, though, the Oklahoma state legislature has approved a ballot measure this fall to make it clear that Muslim law is not a valid legal authority in the Sooner State. No matter how the war on terror turns out, we'll always have Tulsa.
What's seriously wrong here is this: The soapbox crusaders are turning our fight against a small band of Muslim extremists into exactly what bin Laden wants it to be — a clash between all Muslims and the West.
There's a civil war going on inside Islam, and it's between modernizers like New York's Abdul Rauf, who want to reconcile Muslim life with Western tolerance, and radicals like Bin Laden, who don't.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama don't agree on much, but they do agree that the best way to win the war on terror is to convince Muslim moderates that reconciliation is possible, and to help them win in Islam's civil war.
But the message from those who don't want to allow American Muslims to build their mosques sounds more like this: We don't care how moderate you say you are. If you're a devout Muslim, we think you're part of a fifth column aimed at destroying our civilization.
Back to New York for a moment. Abdul Rauf's less scrupulous critics charge, with no apparent evidence, that he's "linked" in some fashion to terrorists. Do they imagine that the FBI wouldn't have figured that out if it were true? His more scrupulous critics toss out broader political objections: He hasn't specifically condemned Hamas; he supported the seaborne protesters who sought to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip; he isn't a fervent supporter of Israel. One other complaint: Abdul Rauf hasn't revealed who all of his donors are.
It's hard to disagree with that one; who wouldn't like to know where the money is coming from? But even here, there's a double standard at work. Churches and synagogues aren't required to identify their donors. Gingrich doesn't identify his contributors either. ("Our donors have an expectation that we won't disclose their names," Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler explained. "We don't carry the burden of being a mosque that likely is funded by foreign countries.")
For a reality check, I talked with a wise New Yorker: Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Hirschfield knows Abdul Rauf and considers him a genuine moderate.
"The rumor-mongering that he's some kind of agent for Islamists is utterly different from everything I know about him," the rabbi said. "With this (cultural center) project, he's proposing a spiritual response to a spiritual problem. This (9/11) was Islamic terror. He's trying to use the tradition to correct itself."
But Hirschfield worries that the process has gone off the rails and that instead of the interfaith understanding that Abdul Rauf hoped to foster, there may be bitterness on both sides.
If Abdul Rauf wants his cultural center to become an instrument of reconciliation, he's got plenty of work to do. The question is whether outside agitators like Gingrich and Palin have made that impossible.
The critics claim that building a mosque at 51 Park Place would be a victory for Islamist extremism. They have it exactly backward.
If American Muslims are allowed to build mosques only where Christians and Jews are gracious enough to allow, we will be proving the Islamists' point that the West is every Muslim's enemy. If this mosque is blocked by popular prejudice or political demagoguery, that's when bin Laden will claim a second victory — in the shadow, as they say, of Ground Zero.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.