Everyone in the country, it seems, has an opinion about the Islamic community center planned for near — not at — the site of the World Trade Center attack. President Obama weighed in last week, though he appears to have subsequently hedged his support for the center.
Let me give my own two cents’ worth.
My arguments are simple.
First, we live in a country where the free practice of religion is protected. We simply cannot discriminate against specific religions, no matter what our view of their beliefs. We can — and, indeed, should — take action against religious groups involved in criminal acts; but no evidence has been presented that those involved in the community center are planning such acts. (If anyone has such evidence, he should turn it over to the FBI at once.)
The idea, being floated among the most extreme precincts of the political right, that Islam may not be a religion is a) false as a matter of fact and b) repellent in its bigotry. If Islam isn’t a religion, neither is Christianity. The apparent logic of this position is twisted: a) we want to discriminate against Muslims, b) we cannot do so because of freedom of religion; therefore c) Islam cannot be a religion.
Second, the community center will include programs that stress interfaith understanding. To my mind, this is a laudable goal. Islam is one of the world’s most important religions. The United States is now fighting wars in two countries where the population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Not least, Islam is the faith held — in however perverted a form — by that minority of Muslims who support terrorist acts against the United States. It behooves us, not just as intellectually engaged individuals but as non-Muslim citizens, to gain a better knowledge of the rich past and complex present of a religion followed by over a billion people around the world. As somebody who spent a number of years living in Muslim countries, I never cease to be astonished by the misconceptions about Islam held among non-Muslim Americans. I have heard things said about Muslims that — were the comments directed at Christians or Jews — would put the speaker beyond the social pale.
Third, stopping the cultural center at this point would send the wrong message to Muslims around the word. I disagreed with much in the foreign policy of President George W. Bush, most notably what I considered to be the foolhardy invasion of Iraq. But he deserves immense credit for stressing, in the wake of 9/11, that Islam was not the enemy of the United States. Indeed, Bush made it a point to appear at the Islamic Center in Washington just days after the attacks. He shrewdly understood that fostering a religious war would play directly into the hands of the most extreme and dangerous elements among Muslims. I only wish Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich were possessed of similar wisdom.
Former Speaker of the House Gingrich has gone so far as to say this:
This is an astonishing statement. A major public figure and possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is asserting that the rights of American citizens — in this case, Muslim New Yorkers — should be contingent upon the actions of other governments.
Remind me: what do we have a constitution for?
Joe Barnes is the Baker Institute’s Bonner Means Baker Fellow. From 1979 to 1993, he was a career diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, serving in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.