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America, Home of the Free -- Except for Muslims?

Religious faith is too important to become a political punching bag. One does not have to like or even respect Islam to believe its practitioners have the right to build a worship center wherever they wish.
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Religion stirs our deepest passions. That helps explain the furor over the planned construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan near Ground Zero. Why else would Americans, who normally glory in their right to practice their chosen faiths, be debating whether people can build a house of worship in the nation's most populous city?

It is a disturbing discussion. The tone is ugly; the charges are vicious. And no Christian, Jew, or other religious person can feel safe if angry mobs -- even if only virtual -- are able to stop the activities of an unpopular faith.

There is no legal barrier to building the mosque and Muslim community center, called Cordoba House, in New York City. If the First Amendment means anything, the government cannot single out a particular religion for constructing a worship facility. The Free Exercise Clause would mean little if politicians could willy-nilly close down mosques -- or churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious sites.

Any attempt to block Cordoba House also would run into the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Passed by voice vote in the Republican Congress of 2000, the law targets state and local governments attempting to inhibit religious exercise through land use regulation. Senate sponsor Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) explained: "At the core of religious freedom is the ability for assemblies to gather and worship together."

Nevertheless, should the mosque not be built, at least at the planned site? The moral outrage generated over the proposed construction is real. But it appears to reflect the dubious claim of collective Muslim responsibility for 9/11.

Of course, those who committed those atrocities were Muslims. And they used their faith as justification. However, the vast majority of Muslims, overseas as well as at home, obviously are not terrorists. Targeting a proposed mosque in lower Manhattan in response to 9/11 punishes American Muslims for the crimes committed by a score of (mostly irreligious) Saudi Arabians.

And much more than faith animates terrorists. Terrorism is an ancient tool of politics. Awful, yes, but common. Terrorism did not originate with Muslims.

Moreover, most Muslims who commit terrorist acts make political rather than theological arguments. They perceive the U.S. government as being at war with Muslims. That doesn't justify the atrocities that terrorists commit. But as Robert Pape, in particular, has documented, it is foreign occupation that motivates most terrorists. And today Muslim lands are most likely to be seen as dominated by the U.S. and its allies.

In fact, those Americans angered by Cordoba House should recognize the problem of blowback. The mere thought of a mosque near Ground Zero infuriates them, but they expect Muslims in other lands to smile benignly as Washington bombs, invades, and occupies their lands, and captures or kills their peoples. Again, nothing justifies terrorism. But that doesn't prevent U.S. government policies from inadvertently encouraging terrorism. The issue is not how we see our government's intentions, but how others perceive our government's actions.

Still, strong sensitivities exist in this case, whether logical or not. For many people, especially those who lost family members and friends in the World Trade Center attack, Ground Zero has a unique emotional hold. There's good reason to respect these sensibilities.

In 1984 Carmelite nuns turned an abandoned building, actually a one-time storehouse for Zyklon B gas, at the edge of Auschwitz into a convent to pray for the souls of those murdered in the camp by the Nazis. Years of controversy ensued, as many Jews were offended by the nuns' presence. In April 1993 Pope John Paul II instructed the nuns to move.

That they meant well did not matter. Their presence at Auschwitz had become counterproductive and their work could be better done elsewhere. So, too, one could argue that Cordoba House risks doing more harm than good. Organizer Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has a history of interfaith cooperation, says he intends to promote moderate Islam. Nevertheless, he might do more to encourage religious comity if he voluntarily took the project elsewhere.

But where? Unfortunately, it's not clear what would satisfy critics. The Carmelite convent was connected to the "sacred ground" of Auschwitz, so the nuns simply moved away from the site. However, Cordoba House is not slated for Ground Zero, but a nearby commercial zone that includes bars, pizza joints, bank branches, shoe stores, beauty salons, and even a "gentleman's club." So Newt Gingrich is wrong to charge: "it is simply grotesque to erect a mosque at the site of the most visible and powerful symbol of the horrible consequences of radical Islamist ideology." The Muslim facility won't be there.

The complaint based on proximity is more dubious. If two (rather long) blocks is too close, then how about ten blocks? Or twenty blocks? Is Harlem okay? Or Queens? What about Staten Island, across the river? Sensitivity to what happened at Ground Zero cannot justify closing an entire city to Muslims.

Is there another justification to target the project? There is much chatter about nefarious ties to extremists and plans for violence. Bill Clinton's old pollster, Dick Morris, along with Eileen McGann charged: "The proposed mosque near to ground zero is not really a religious institution. It would be -- as many mosques throughout the nation are -- a terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and training center." Indeed, they added, Cordoba House would "serve as local branch office of the pan-Islamic terrorist offensive against the west."

If Morris and McGann have inside information about an illegal plot, they should contact the police and FBI. Of course, they have no such intelligence, since if they did they would not be on television making their outrageous claims. Anyway, this charge has nothing to do with constructing a mosque in lower Manhattan. If dangerous conspiracies are afoot, they could be conducted in Hoboken, Newark, or Scarsdale.

Further, it should be obvious that most American Muslims do not spend their time plotting against their neighbors. One can legitimately ask if extremism is being taught in specific mosques and Muslim schools. But the answer tells us nothing about the proposed Cordoba House.

Perhaps the worst argument is that since Muslims persecute Christians and Jews elsewhere, Americans should ban mosques here. Said Newt Gingrich: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." (He also doesn't like the name, because, he says, Cordoba, the town in Spain where Muslim conquerors turned a church into a mosque, is "a symbol of Islamic conquest.")

It is a bad argument at many levels. First, the U.S., not Saudi Arabia, should set the standard for tolerance in America and around the world. Riyadh is one of the world's worst religious persecutors. Saudi conduct is best seen as an example of what we should not do.

Second, the question for us today is the freedom of Muslim Americans, not the freedom of Saudi Arabian Christians, Jews, Baha'is, and others. Respecting the former is within our power. Protecting the latter, alas, is not. Punishing American Muslims for the sins of the Saudi royal family makes no sense.

Third, carrying out what looks to be a, to coin a word, jihad against American Muslims will make it harder for activists in the West to promote religious liberty in the Muslim world. The task is tough enough in any case. But if Americans reek of hypocrisy they are likely to have even less success. This nation is a refuge for people around the globe because of its willingness to stand for liberty as a matter of principle. To allow popular passions to block a faith center because it is Muslim would be to follow Esau in selling our nation's moral birthright for a mess of pottage.

However, responsibility runs both ways. The Muslim faith has been misused atrociously by people of ill will. In the past Christians lost sight of the transcendent meaning of their faith while pursuing worldly ends. In time Christians confronted and excised those theological malignancies.

Moderate Muslims the world over face a similar task. Extremists too often have justified terrorism and murder in the name of Allah. Moreover, even many mainstream Muslims have supported or at least acquiesced in the persecution of minority faiths. Indeed, no Islamic state allows true religious liberty. The more tolerant countries in the Persian Gulf and North Africa generally permit worship but still ban proselytizing. In many other Muslim nations Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Hindus, and others face harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, and even death.

Islamic societies, and not just governments, around the globe need to renounce violence and repression. The strongest advocates of true religious freedom in Muslim societies will always be other Muslims who recognize the importance of respecting the life and dignity of all peoples.

Religious faith is too important to become a political punching bag. One does not have to like or even respect Islam to believe its practitioners have the right to build a worship center wherever they wish. Christians, especially, should avoid joining the Cordoba House mob. Those who most worry about living in a post-Christian world should most resolutely defend religious liberty for all.

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