Newt Gingrich's New Clash of Civilizations

The bluntly-named group "Stop Islamization in America" has posted signs on the sides of metro buses across the country this summer, reading: "Fatwa on your head?" and "Leaving Islam?" Pamela Geller, who heads the organization, says she just wants to help out Muslims endangered by their own religion.

Funny: I don't believe I've seen any signs yet reading: "Priest molesting you in the confession booth? Leaving Catholicism?"

There is a new and disturbing trend towards Muslim bashing in the United States. If it continues apace it is likely to help stir up a real national "clash of civilizations." Too bad. The American Muslims I know are some of the most open-minded and tolerant practitioners of the Islamic faith.

Witness Newt Gingrich's bizarre stance on the planned Muslim community center two blocks from the World Trade Center with a mosque on one floor: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia," he contends.

Is he saying we should be just as intolerant as some of the world's most authoritarian governments? It certainly sounds like it.

Folks jumping on the anti-Muslim bandwagon this summer might like to recall that America's founders stressed religious tolerance for a reason: Minority faiths deserve the same protection as all faiths, particularly because they are likely to be the first ones persecuted by the majority. Maybe that is why Thomas Jefferson bothered to read his own Koran. The father of the nation, George Washington, harbored no anxiety towards other religions on American soil. In one instance, he wrote this to his agent about hiring workmen at Mount Vernon: "If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."

Gingrich and his brethren are now trying to stir up new fears about Islam in America. His clique has little credibility, however.

In the build up to the Iraq War, Gingrich, like many in his set, missed the story inside that nation on how Saddam's own policies had kept the al Qaeda genie in the bottle. Gingrich wrote a column in USA Today, entitled: "Strike Sooner Than Later." He played a key role in driving the U.S. into a bungled invasion that was unrelated to the 9/11 attacks, cost at least one trillion in U.S. tax dollars and helped further the false impression that America was at war with Islam. Not surprisingly, as CNN's Peter Bergen later documented, in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, terrorist attacks around the world rose by a factor of 600 percent.

Now this discredited gang is warning Americans to be bold and courageous and step up to the threat of "Islamization" posed by the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. Gingrich claimed recently at the National Press Club that his own grandchildren live in fear of legions of suicide bombers anxious to invade American soil.

His real message: Brace yourself for endless confrontation. Never mind the motivations for Islamic terror and how America's own naïve actions in the Islamic realm helped create the Frankenstein we are facing abroad.

Both Gingrich and Geller have fertile ground to make political hay. Nearly half of all Americans believe that Muslims are prone to violence, according to recent polling data. Others openly doubt the loyalty of Muslim Americans. With the constant warnings on Fox News and other cable stations that we must watch our back abroad and at home, it is little wonder that so many Americans remain a bit terrified of the "other."

Americans need to take a deep breath. Not unlike fringe Christian groups, only a small percentage in the Islamic realm subscribe to any kind of violence at all. Islam is not creeping into American classrooms and undermining the way our children think. The very notion that we should fear this is reminiscent of Senator McCarthy's "red baiting" tactics.

In my researching my book, My Brother, My Enemy from Sahelian Africa through the Holy Land, South Asia and onto Indonesia, I discovered that it is the hyperbolic language in the West -- the use of such absurd phrases as "Islamo-facism" -- that helps stir the passions of young Muslims, many of them already disenfranchised by their own governments. Worse, when we pay lip-service to such talk, we are essentially elevating the fringe element within Islam to an undeserved level of international prominence. Indeed, Al Qaeda loves this language because it plays into their own "us versus them" propaganda cycle.

As for this "clash of civilizations" that Gingrich and Geller are pushing, our foes must be saying, "Bring it on!" It should be no wonder that when we go hunting for false specters, we create the kind of monsters we fear the most.

Fortunately, there is another direction -- the American way. Lest we be fooled again, there are encouraging signs out there. There is an expanding moderate middle in Islam; one that Americans and their politicians should be encouraging and paying far more attention to than the fringe. National polls in the largest Arab country, Egypt, for example, show that four of five Egyptians believe that democracy is a very good system of government.

Likewise, Americans should be wary of the damning message that it sends across the globe when leading American politicians like Gingrich argue to curtail their shared religious freedom, a cornerstone of our tolerant nation.