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Attacking American Muslims

Some of those who favor placing Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s proposal to build a mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero have used malicious rhetoric to characterize those who oppose them. They are said to be anti-Muslim, anti-Constitutional, and acting, in the words of MSNBC’s resident deep thinker Norah O’Donnell, “like the people who stole freedom from Americans, the people who attacked America and killed 3,000 people.”

This is ugly and unfortunate stuff.

At the same time, those who oppose building the mosque near Ground Zero have an obligation to be careful about the rhetoric they employ. For example, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has said: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.” He later added, by way of analogy, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington.”

Let’s take these assertions in order. Regarding the first one, Saudi Arabia is not the standard Americans should use on the matter of religious freedom. As for the second argument: the analogy breaks down because Nazism was intrinsically malevolent, whereas mosques are not.

It is true, of course, that far too many Muslims in the world embrace a form of militant Islam; to deny that would be to deny reality. Those who attacked us on September 11 did so in the name of Islam. And those are not, by any means, the only attacks the world (or America) has witnessed.

At the same time, we have to be very careful not to conflate American Muslims with al-Qaeda and Wahhabism or argue, explicitly or implicitly, that mosques qua mosques are comparable to Nazism. Some mosques do fan the flames of hatred and violence; but of course many more do not.

It was a tribute to America that, in the aftermath of 9/11, it showed impressive tolerance and respect toward Muslims in this nation. President Bush went out of his way, early and often, to strike just the right tone.

“America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” Bush said at the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., just six days after the attacks. “Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”

Those words apply now as they did then.

I have argued before that the effort to build the mosque near Ground Zero is terribly imprudent because it was sure to ignite a debate in this country that is divisive and dangerous. Many Americans, for completely understandable reasons, would rather have this particular mosque run by this particular imam built elsewhere in New York. To characterize that opposition as bigoted, malicious, and un-American has evoked a perfectly predictable counterreaction. “It’s about damn time that Muslims around the world and in the United States — I’m talking about this particular imam — be sensitive to American values,” is how one commentator put it.

Because the debate on the mosque near Ground Zero deals with extremely sensitive matters, it’s easy for things to spin out of control. So it’s particularly important that arguments be made with precision, with care, and even with some measure of grace and understanding.

As usual, it’s wise to look to Lincoln to guide our way. In the words of the historian William Lee Miller:

[Lincoln] led one side in a bloody war not by arousing the aggressive tribalism, the assertive collective will, that war leaders often summon and that war publics often display, but by rather reasoning and eloquence. He gave careful arguments for his position, implying that he and his followers and their adversaries – their “dissatisfied countrymen” – were all part of a universal community of human reason. … He did not demean or demonize the enemy … he did not deal in disdain or contempt for the adversary.

Neither should we.


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