Ground Zero for Tolerance

Ground Zero for Tolerance

The irrational attack on Muslims everywhere by the GOP’s leadership is not only deeply subversive with regard to the American ideal of religious tolerance but also poses a profound threat to our national security.


This story originally appeared at Truthdig.
Are the Republicans terminally stupid or are they just playing the dangerous fool? In either case, the irrational attack on Muslims everywhere by the GOP’s leadership is not only deeply subversive with regard to the American ideal of religious tolerance but also poses a profound threat to our national security. Nor does it help that some top Democrats like Harry Reid are willing to demean Muslims even as we fight two wars in which victory depends on our ability to convey a respect for their religion.

Just ask General David Petraeus, who is leading the war without end to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in Afghanistan, how helpful it is to the Taliban for American politicians to identify all Muslims with terrorism. Or to the theocratic leaders of Iran who justify their hard line with the insistence that the United States is obsessively anti-Muslim.

Demonization of the Muslim religion is what this brouhaha is all about. Talk of the sensitivity of the victims of 9/11, ignoring those who were Muslim, is just camouflage. It is as absurd as it would be to blame all religious Jews for the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed by one gunman from a fanatical Jewish fringe group, or to ban the erection of an Orthodox synagogue anywhere near Rabin’s grave. As irrational an act of scapegoating as blaming all ethnic Germans for the acts of Nazis, many of whom claimed to be God-fearing Christians.

Yet that is the logical implication of the comparison that Newt Gingrich made when he likened the proposed erection of a Muslim community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site to putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum. On his website, Newt goes further in identifying all Muslims with terrorism: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively towards us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.”

Consider the full implication of that call for an international cold war against Islam by the former GOP House speaker. Someone should remind Newt that both Republican and Democratic presidents have regarded Saudi Arabia as an ally in the war against terrorism and toward that end sanctioned the sale of very sophisticated weaponry to the kingdom and the sharing of intelligence with its military. So too with the Muslim-dominated government of Pakistan with which we have been allied for a half-century, not to mention our current Muslim allies in power in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a leader in Congress, Gingrich supported those policies, but now in his zeal to misrepresent President Barack Obama’s perfectly sensible stand that we are not at war with the Muslim world, he abandons not only his record but also any pretense of logic.

But even if one accepts that the Wahhabi version of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia helps fuel violent spinoffs of the Osama bin Laden variety (although bin Laden would be summarily executed in his native land), what does this have to do with a Sufi Muslim community center proposed for lower Manhattan? As the highly regarded religion writer William Dalrymple pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the group hoping to build the New York center, is a moderate Sufi, and he and his movement’s espousal of universal brotherhood have been a target of violence. The Taliban was so threatened by the Sufi message of universal love that it attacked a Pakistani shrine to the great seventeenth-century Sufi poet-saint Rahman Baba. “I am a lover, and I deal in love,” Dalrymple writes in citing Baba’s revered Sufi verse, which continues, “Sow flowers,/ so your surroundings become a garden./ Don’t sow thorns; for they will prick your feet./ We are all one body./ Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.”

Just the message most relevant to adorn a building near the site of the World Trade Center, leveled by those who sow thorns. But sadly the thorns of religious bigotry are not a monopoly of any one religion or easily resisted by the demagogic politicians who exploit our ignorance of the other. The premise of our constitutional protection of religious diversity is that ignorance is the enemy of freedom. 

Our founders were keenly aware, from the lessons of Europe and the early American colonies, of the dangers posed by false prophets from within their own churches. They knew well from deep personal experience, as is revealed clearly in the writings of Washington and Jefferson, that religious and political liberty was most effectively threatened by the zealotry of one’s own kin.

Robert Scheer is the author of The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books).

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