The Ground Zero Muslim Center -- How Low Can We Go?

During the last few years Americans have seen facts and truth play a smaller and smaller role in political discourse. At the same time, lies, distortions, nastiness and demonization have replaced civility and respect in our public conversation. Racism and bigotry, always present in subtle ways in the past, have become more thinly veiled as these trends have taken a firmer hold and anger and outrage have gained new traction and acceptance as part of political and media dialogue.

All of these toxic trends have come together during the last month and have been reflected in the media coverage, political opportunism, and email conversation about the new Muslim Center that is being built blocks away from Ground Zero.

Ironically, least affected by all of this hysteria was the government process of the city of New York. The center is being built on private property on a nondescript piece of land and in conformance with all relevant zoning and use guidelines. Approval of the center breezed through the required process with the support of Mayor Bloomberg and unanimous votes by the relevant committees. For years there have been discussions and proposal for development of Ground Zero itself that aroused virtually no national interest.

As has been the case with all proposals on and near ground zero, the developers are long-time American citizens with no legal or tax issues who have a long history of working for pluralism and greater understanding among people. The difference with this project of course is that the developers are Muslim.

That is not supposed to matter in America. We are a country with a long and proud legal and moral tradition of people being innocent until proven guilty. For decades it has be considered both immoral and illegal to discriminate against anyone based on race, religion, color, or ethnicity. Unfortunately, those days seem to be long gone -- the victim of the addiction to anger and outrage and the need for dark-skinned villains that has overtaken our national conversation.

As has become normal in matters of manufactured outrage and controversy, the symbiotic partnership between Fox News and the Republican Right got the ball rolling. But the trend toward more thinly veiled bigotry and demonization of people of color and "the other" continued its acceleration.

As you may have noticed, according to Fox and the Right, the only real racists in our country are now people of color. President Obama, Van Jones, Sonia Sotomayor, and Shirley Sherrod. There are apparently no white racists any more. And every economic, law enforcement, and national character problem Americans face can be directly linked to our socialist Black president, dark-skinned Mexican immigrants, and Muslims (every one of whom is assumed to be a terrorist or embrace a religion that's focused on death and destruction). Not a single one of our national ills can be traced to the behavior of the rest of us. The job of Real Patriots and Real Americans (white people) is to be increasingly outraged and point out how "we" are the victims of "them."

The tactics surrounding the debate over the Muslim Center have taken this national embarrassment to a whole new level. As Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama, and many others have pointed out, there is no way any law-abiding American can oppose the right of American citizens to build a Muslim Center on private land unless they believe that all Muslims share responsibility for 9/11 and that all members of a religion are guilty of the crimes that were committed by a very small group of their co-religionists. As Michael Kinsley has convincingly explained, this thinking is flawed, illegal and un-American on every level.

The most ironic aspect of the debate has been that opponents have claimed that allowing the center to be built would grant a victory to the terrorists. As Jeffrey Goldberg and others have accurately pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth. A Muslim Center run by an Imam who has written a book entitled The American Dream is the Muslim Dream and who has worked for decades to promote cooperation and understanding will become the number one target of Muslim terrorists because he is the ultimate affront to their core belief that infidels should be destroyed -- not embraced.

The fact that presidential hopeful and Fox analyst Newt Gingrich has compared building a Muslim Center led by American citizens committed to peace and interfaith cooperation to putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum is disappointing (Jeff Goldberg called Gingrich "an ally of Al Qaeda") but not a surprise. The fact that Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity have spread vicious lies about Imam Rauf and implied that most families of victims of 9/11 are opposed to the center (they aren't -- many are strong supporters) is also not a surprise.

But as a Jew who is deeply involved with and committed to a number of community organizations, the biggest shock has been the extent to which so many Jewish leaders and organizations have gone to the dark side on this issue. Jews have suffered for centuries from bigoted group-think and the spread of slanderous lies which has led to shameful discrimination. And no group has fought more energetically and effectively to combat bigotry, relgious discrimination, and to uphold the rights of all Americans.

That's why it was such a shock to many when the Anti Defamation League came out in opposition to the Muslim Center. More than any other Jewish organization, the ADL and its long time director Abraham Foxman have been true to their stated mission of protecting and defending the rights of all groups who were victims of religious discrimination. As a result of its disappointing flip when it comes to Muslims, the ADL has earned the criticism of respected Jewish writers, organizations, and rabbis and had distinguished journalist Fareed Zakaria announce on CNN that he has returned the award and $10,000 honorarium he received from the ADL five years ago to honor his commitment to the First Amendment and his outstanding reporting.

In response, Foxman issued a release expressing no regret for his position and saying basically that he hopes Zakaria comes to his senses and changes his mind.

Even though the Muslim Center has received approval and will be built, I continue to receive a flood of emails from fellow Jews trying to help me understand through cherry-picked quotes from the Koran and provocative 4 minute videos that Islam is a religion of death and suggesting that "they" need to express remorse for the attack on 9/11 nine years ago before "they" should be allowed to build a mosque in New York--or, as Newt Gingrich has suggested and the New York Times has reported--anywhere else in the U.S.

These suggestions are contrary to American law and tradition on their face, but they are particularly shocking coming from a group that until recently suffered so broadly from the same kind of broad brush discrimination. I ask my fellow Jewish friends how they would respond to a suggestion that since it is common knowledge that Jews are greedy and will do anything to make money legally or otherwise at the expense of others, that rabbis and Jewish leaders should publicly apologize on behalf of all Jews for the actions of financial terrorists Bernie Madoff and Orthodox Jews like former Enron CFO Andy Fastow and Jack Abramoff who swindled and bankrupted thousands of innocent people.

The idea is appropriately greeted as offensive, slanderous and un-American on its face. But for some reason, those who demonize all Muslims don't realize that they are holding millions of peaceful, law-abiding, tax paying, American citizens to a similar warped standard. The angry critics also never point out that dozens of Muslims were victims of the 9/11 attacks -- including six members of Imam Rauf's mosque. Are the families of those victims part of the "they" or are they part of the "real" victims?

Are the families of the thousands of Muslims who bravely serve in our armed forces part of the "they"? Should all these brave Americans be forced to apologize for horrible acts committed 9 years ago by a couple dozen of their co-religionists or are they exempt from the rest of Muslims who owe us an apology and and explanation?

Are our "allies" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan who we are spending trillions to defend and support and on whose behalf tens of thousands of Americans have been killed or maimed in recent years part of the "they?" Lest we forget, they are all Muslims.

By any reasonable standard, there never was a real controversy over whether the Muslim Center should have been approved and now that American justice and values have prevailed there is really nothing more to discuss. But we all know that this is not about a Muslim Center. It is about political opportunism, the desire for media profits, and our growing dysfunctional need for anger, outrage and villains. After all, without villains we might have to look in the mirror and realize that is was us and the representives we elected who have created the multiple crises we now face. But that's worth a whole article of its own.

That's also why for some time to come, there will be a great deal of heat and very little light created around this and other issues. We have reached a new low in the quality and civility of our national conversation. But there can be no doubt that we haven't yet hit the bottom. This is looking and feeling more and more like a black hole into which there is no limit to how far we can sink.