This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
If one of the chief purposes of an Islamic center by Ground Zero was to promote interfaith understanding, its chief backer – Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf – might want to think about building it elsewhere.
But if the Cordoba House will be about making a defiant assertion of Muslim identity and constitutional rights, the location near the fallen World Trade Center will do just fine. Whatever Rauf originally had in mind, and whoever’s to blame, that site has become an incitement to Islamophobia, and the public now sees it as a stick in the eye.
Much as he’s been maligned for defending the project, President Obama actually got things right two weeks ago – if you combine both his original statement and the half-step back he quickly took.
As he said initially, Muslims have the same right as other Americans to “not be treated differently by their government.” Next day, he said he was talking about constitutional freedoms, not the “wisdom” of the project.
No one was questioning either the wisdom or foolishness of the Cordoba House until recently, when the usual crew of mega-mouthed media rabble-rousers – thank you, Fox News – began whipping up a furor about it. It might otherwise have quietly been built, opened and absorbed by the commercial din and ethnic cacophony of Lower Manhattan.
That possibility is long gone. The project has since become an epicenter of anti-Muslim sentiment, which has rippled out to other mosque projects elsewhere in the country. The Washington Post reported Monday, for example, that citizens in Murfreesboro, Tenn., are protesting plans for an Islamic center there with such signs as “Keep Tennessee Terror Free.”
Islam in America has taken a beating since the uproar metastasized across the nation. A recent Time magazine poll is particularly discouraging.
Published a week ago, it suggested that 70 percent of the American public viewed the Cordoba House as an “insult” to the victims of 9/11. That, taken by itself, is a defensible view. As others have noted, there’s no Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor, though Japanese Americans have as much right as anyone else to build a cultural center there.
What’s unreasonable, and downright un-American, is the belief that Muslims in general are suspect and ought to be treated as second-class citizens. The Time poll indicated that 28 percent of Americans believe that Muslims shouldn’t be eligible for the Supreme Court, and nearly a third think Muslims should be barred from running for president.
As the “Keep Tennessee Terror Free” sign suggests, the tenor of anti-Muslim rhetoric has gotten distinctly uglier since the Cordoba House got the Bill O’Reilly treatment on Fox.
At this point, the ball is squarely in Rauf’s court. Any American who understands and cherishes the Constitution will defend to the death an imam’s right to build an Islamic center anywhere a church could be built. But rights and wisdom are not always the same thing. Defiance or prudence; that’s become Rauf’s choice.