Politicians and pundits are like raccoons—both are distracted by shiny objects. The latest shiny object driving them to distraction is the controversy surrounding the "Ground Zero mosque" (which is, of course, neither on Ground Zero nor a mosque). What began as jingoistic chatter on fringe websites has quickly grown into full-fledged public protests demanding a halt to the proposed Islamic center in New York City's Lower Manhattan. Poll after poll demonstrate that over 70% of Americans disapprove of the proposed center. Beyond Lower Manhattan, organized and vocal groups have emerged opposing other similar projects all over the country.
Sensing an emotional groundswell of popular agitation, some political hopefuls have shamelessly attempted to ride the angry wave to electoral victory. In campaign speeches, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio railed against the proposed center's "terrorist-sympathizing" imam, while Republican Congressman Peter King declared, "it is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero." Staff at the National Republican Senatorial Committee frantically faxed media in battleground states demanding that the Democratic nominees voice their position on the "Ground Zero mosque." Incredibly, Newt Gingrich has made statements equating Islam with Nazism. Sarah Palin, not wanting to miss the opposition bandwagon, sent bewildering tweets demanding that Americans "refudiate" the project.
And the GOP has not cornered the market on anti-Muslim sentiment. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, locked in a campaign for his political survival in Nevada, announced that he "thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else." Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean likewise volunteered his opposition to the proposed Islamic center blocks away from Ground Zero, as have Congressmen Mike McMahon, Steve Israel, and Tim Bishop, all New York Democrats.
Sadly, not only are some political voices cynically attempting to exploit xenophobic fears to score partisan points, it appears the real folly is that there's no real political gain to be had. In a recent interview, political campaign analyst Charlie Cook described the "Ground Zero mosque" as a "little issue." Little issues, Cook explained, emerge and move votes "when the economy is good." Because of the bleak economic forecast lingering for the foreseeable future, Cook argued that next November's election is a "big issue" election where voters are focused on major concerns regarding the economy, jobs, and "kitchen table" issues hitting closer to home and pocketbooks. Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar supports Cook's conclusion. When asked whether his constituents ever raised the "Ground Zero mosque" issue over the August congressional recess, Lugar responded "no"—the Hoosier State's voters focused on jobs, taxes, and the economy.
Thankfully, some politicians on both sides of the partisan aisle have recognized this reality and warned against the hyper-politicization of the issue. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, warned "we cannot paint all of Islam with that 9/11 brush. We have to bring people together. And what offends me the most about all this, is that it's being used as a political football by both parties." Another Republican, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, recognized the issue as a "grand distraction" fueled by "grandiose demagoguery," where instead "the national debate" should focus on issues of "war, peace, and prosperity."
Independent New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was even more emphatic, stating, "The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right." Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes Ground Zero, stands by his Muslim American constituents, stating that there is a "fundamental mistake" behind the thinking of those opposed to the project. Nevada Democratic Congresswoman Shelly Berkley, personalizing the issue, stated, "Given the fact that my family and people in my religion have suffered so much from religious persecution, I cannot see how I can speak out against other minority religions in this country and their free exercise of their own religion... doesn't the Constitution permit the free exercise of religious beliefs? How many synagogues have been burned to the ground with Jews in them because of religious intolerance?" Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican and a Mormon reasoned, "So, if the Muslims own that property, that private property, and they want to build a mosque there, they should have the right to do so." Recalling his past experiences dealing with discrimination against the construction of Mormon temples, Hatch added: "And there's a huge, I think, lack of support throughout the country for Islam to build that mosque there, but that should not make a difference if they decide to do it. I'd be the first to stand up for their rights."
President Barack Obama likewise weighed in: "as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure."
And it is no coincidence that the voices who have stood up for the Constitution and fairness have often been members of religious and ethnic minorities. Indeed, Catholics, Jews, African-Americans and Mormons—all have seen this sad movie before. The same things that are currently being said about Muslims were said about Catholics, about Jews, and about Mormons. Anti-Catholic sentiment became so bad in the 1840s and '50s that the "Know-Nothing" and "nativist" movements of the time whipped anti-Catholic mobs to violence, the burning of Catholic businesses, and the killing of innocent American Catholics. If today Gingrich warns Americans of "creeping Sharia" or "stealth jihad," yesterday's canard was "the Catholic menace" which threatened the nation with papal designs of domination. And if today twenty percent of Americans believe Obama is somehow a secret Muslim, not too long ago many believed our leaders were secretly in cahoots with a Catholic pope. Rumors swirled around presidents Martin Van Buren and William McKinley, for example, and their alleged plot to transfer the American nation to the papal control of Rome. As recently as 1950, Paul Blanshard wrote American Freedom and Catholic Power, where he ominously warned of the Catholic “plan” to take over America “and the world.”
The oldest hatred, anti-Semitism, has been present since the Roman Empire, and we’ve seen anti-Semitism in America as well. Echoing today's controversy, New York's early governor Peter Stuyvesant banned all synagogues. Under British control in 1685, New York City's Common Council denied the petition of Jewish refugees who hoped to build a synagogue, stating "public worship is tolerated . . . but to those that profess faith in Christ." Centuries later, American Jews were the subject of Father Charles Coughlin's notoriously anti-Semitic radio screeds in the 1930s. During the 1940s, our government shamefully turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Similar suspicions were directed against Mormons, who were derided "as deluded cranks and lawless murderers, thieves and adulterers," and were banned from preaching in New York City.
Such intolerance and fear is further exacerbated in times of war or when there is a perceived--as tenuous as it may be--connection between an indigenous minority community and a foreign enemy. Turn-of-the-century anarchists, for example, were often accused of plotting violence in furtherance of the Catholic faith. During World War I, Teddy Roosevelt denounced "Germanized socialists" as "more mischievous than bubonic plague." Italian Americans were harassed and imprisoned during World War II. No one can forget President Franklin Roosevelt's disgraceful internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans from 1942-1945. And during the Cold War, charges of "Jewish Bolshevism" were rampant in the paranoid midst of the McCarthy-era "Red Scare." The arrest and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage on behalf of the Soviets only served to bolster such reprehensible claims.
Today, there is no doubt that those who perpetrated the heinous attacks of 9/11 did so in the name of their faith. And as twisted as their interpretation may be, it is incumbent upon the vast majority of peace-loving Muslim Americans to remind their fellow Americans that they in no way shared anything in common with these murderous killers. The terrorists tragically took the lives of almost three thousand Americans in the towers, the planes, and the Pentagon because they were Americans--Christians, Jews, Muslims, and so many of other faiths--but Americans all. Indeed, many of the brave first responders on that fateful day included Muslim Americans in valiant service of their fellow Americans. This reality poignantly underscores the fact that Muslim Americans are an integrated part of every facet of American society, including in the professional, economic, and increasingly, political arenas. Indeed, it is testimony to the resiliency of the American people that, a few short years after the 9/11 tragedy, not one but two Muslim Americans (Keith Ellison of Minneapolis and Andre Carson of Indianapolis) were elected to Congress, and both from districts with relatively small local Muslim constituencies. Such examples serve to illustrate, in a uniquely American way, that Islam is very much organically compatible with western democracy and constitutional freedom.
The post-9/11 elections of Ellison and Carson further underscore the fact that Americans are a fundamentally fair-minded people. Indeed, most of those opposed to the presence of Muslim Americans in Lower Manhattan are not racists or bigots. Rather, many are members of the public who've been subject to misinformation and often vitriolic commentary on cable news shows, talk radio, and blogs. Similarly, most Americans years ago didn't hate Catholics, Jews, or Mormons. But many of these communities were subject to discrimination and often horrendous violence by a hateful few because the majority remained silent. Founding Father Samuel Adams said, "It does not take a majority to prevail . . . but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brush fires of freedom in the minds of men." Let's be grateful that, regardless of the current polls, vocal popular sentiment, and election-year partisanship, there remains a tireless minority dedicated to standing up for freedom, justice and the liberties enshrined in the American Constitution. And importantly, there are those brave few who, instead of chasing after the illusory gain of political expediency, are willing to stand up for what's morally right.
Suhail A. Khan serves on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union and as chairman of the Conservative Inclusion Coalition, an organization dedicated to the political involvement of Americans of all ethnic, racial, and faith backgrounds.