Islam, the religion of more than 1.2 billion people around the world, does not frighten me.
I also have no fear of Muslims, those followers of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad who call God “Allah.”

The words imam, Quran, mosque or even jihad do not cause me to tremble or to run in search of a hiding place.

What does scare me in these perilous times are the bigots, many of them zealots wrapped in religion and flag, who find it easy to spew their venomous hatred toward any person or group that is different from them.

Even more disturbing is that these peddlers of prejudice, urged on by those self-proclaimed and self-indulgent opinion makers who dominate significant parts of today’s media, have no trouble recruiting misguided, eager followers.

They have decided they will uphold the honor of our democratic republic by fighting against all whom they consider to be un-American and, therefore, enemies to our way of life, our Constitution and our very existence. “They” want to protect me — us — from them, whoever the “thems” happen to be.

The controversy over a proposed mosque and community center near the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers in New York City has evolved into a textbook demonstration of intolerance, exhibitions of false patriotism and political demagoguery.

Since the hijackers who flew airplanes into the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, were Muslims, there are those who feel the construction of an Islamic house of worship near “Ground Zero” somehow would taint this hallowed spot and smear the memories of all who died there at the hands of terrorists.

Several groups, including some family members of victims, current and former politicians and conservative advocates, have opposed building the mosque and have done everything in their power to stop it.

This past week, opponents hoped that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission would declare “landmark status” for the current building on the site, meaning it could not be torn down to make way for the new mosque. The commission voted unanimously that the 152-year-old structure did not qualify as a landmark.

Some vowed to sue in an effort to halt the $100 million development of the property which, in addition to the mosque, would include an auditorium, basketball court, swimming pool and culinary school, according to The Associated Press.

It is not surprising that in this political season the politicians are preying on the fears of gullible people by creating enemies whom they can rail against and from whom they can defend us. Whether it be immigrants or Muslims, it really doesn’t matter so long as it causes us to turn our sights away from the real issues facing this country and focus instead on the phantom threats to American freedom and justice.

The controversy is an issue in the New York governor’s race, and it no doubt will be brought up in other contests around the country if politicians feel they can make a point or gain a vote by showing how prejudiced they can be. It’s an old political tactic that has worked over the years.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a noble leader on this subject, eloquently articulating the right of Muslims to build their mosque where it is planned and reminding all Americans of the principles on which this nation was founded.

After the commission’s decision, the mayor went to Governors Island — “where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted” — and, with the Statue of Liberty prominent in the background, taught us a brilliant history lesson about the wave of immigration and the constitutional guarantees to even the newest American citizens.

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center,” the mayor said, “lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that government must never choose between religions or favor one over another.

“The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said ‘no’ to a mosque in lower Manhattan.”

Noting that Muslims also were murdered on 9/11 and that the first responders to the terrorist attacks died defending the Constitution, Bloomberg said, “In rushing into those buildings, no one asked, ‘What god do you pray to? What beliefs do you hold?’ We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.”

If you are tempted to succumb to the reactionary mob-mentality madness, come to your senses and become the true American you claim to be. Put aside your prejudices and reflect on the Founding Fathers whom so many like to quote these days.

And if you need help in remembering some of the principles on which the country was founded, I suggest you read Bloomberg’s entire Governors Island speech. It just might open your eyes.

Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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