I — and I imagine most reasonable people in this country as well — have been absolutely appalled at the behavior of national Republican leaders these past few days. The garbage they continue to spew over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” — which, as has been made abundantly clear, is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero — is the very stuff of which all Americans should be truly ashamed.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin very shrewdly got the ball of hatred rolling with her infamous plea to “refudiate” the plan to build the mosque. Although she managed, however awkwardly, to repair her grammar, she continued to shed an unduly harsh national light on the issue.
Palin, and others, have stuck largely to the argument that Ground Zero is “hallowed ground” and therefore anything remotely relating to Islamic culture being established in a borough-wide radius of the site would be an unforgivable “slap in the face” to all Americans who still feel the sting of September 11. Because, I suppose, it was the whole of Islam that attacked our nation that day. No doubt some elements of this country believe that – but they are completely, frightfully wrong.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, has gone right for the anti-Islam jugular – claiming that the proposed center is “an assertion of Islamist triumphalism… an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” And, apparently, because that sort of hate-mongering isn’t abhorrent enough, he continues – “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”
Because what better way to preserve our own civilization, and its founding principle of religious liberty, than by imitating one of the most repressive theocratic states on the face of the planet? Take that, Islamo-fascists!
(This argument, of course, from the man who suggested that the way to prevent America from becoming a socialist nation is to follow the corporate tax policies of communist China).
Though he has wisely, and characteristically, tried to remain above the fray for the past couple of weeks, President Obama used the occasion of last Friday’s iftar to remind his guests, and the nation at large, of what makes us great as a nation:
As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.
Now, frankly, I find it a little embarrassing that the President even feels the need to provide such a reminder in such blindingly obvious terms. But it is clear that several prominent members of this country’s political class have willfully, and maliciously, chosen to ignore the principle of religious liberty in order to ignite their political base and thus preserve their political power. It’s enough to make me vomit.
The President continued by drawing the distinction, yet again, between Islam as a whole and the distorted extremism of those who attacked us on September 11:
So that’s who we’re fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply strength of our arms – it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race, or religion, or wealth, or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us – and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.
Naturally, Mrs Palin couldn’t let this avowal of fundamental American values go un-commented upon, so she replied the next day via Facebook:
Mr President, should they or should they not build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3000 people? Please tell us your position. We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? And, no, this not above your pay grade.
First of all, Mrs Palin, you are correct in saying it is not above his pay grade – it is, in fact, well below it. You might take note of the fact that the President affirmed the right of the Islamic community to build their cultural center “in accordance with local laws and ordinances.” The fact is, as far as the specifics of the development are concerned, the project is entirely a locally governed issue – and the local government has overwhelmingly approved it. It would be most inappropriate for the President to interfere at that level. What is appropriate for the President to do, and what the President ultimately did do, is address the larger issue and help guide the national discussion of it. And that larger issue is how, as a nation, we are still reeling from and adjusting to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11.
There was a particular expression that was used repeatedly in the days that followed the attack — if we let “such-and-such” happen, then the terrorists win. It was that mantra, that stubborn resistance against allowing a murderous bunch of religious extremists to change our way of life, that kept us together and moving forward during a time of unimaginable trauma.
As far as I’m concerned, if we give in to religious fear and ignorance, if we exploit the events of September 11 in service of that fear and ignorance, if we are willing to go so far as to deny the most fundamental right of religious liberty based solely on that fear and ignorance — then the terrorists will have won. They will have succeeded in shaking us to our very core and compelling us to forsake those values which are the source of our greatness.
I, for one, have not been that shaken. I will stand by my American principles and will defend to the death the right of other Americans to enjoy them. And it is my willingness – my capacity, in the President’s words – to defend those principles that makes me, and this country, better than our enemies.