Are we at war with Islam?
That's the central question now in the debate over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. On Friday, President Obama entered the debate, defending the right of Muslim-Americans to worship where they choose. He was then chastised by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, House Minority Leader John Boehner, and other Republican leaders. Yes, they conceded, the project's sponsors can legally build it at the planned site, two blocks from Ground Zero. But that isn't the issue. The issue, they argue, is propriety. As Palin puts it: "We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?"
Confronted by that question on Saturday, Obama ducked it. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there," he said. "I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have."
So let's answer the question. Should the planners of the Islamic center move it somewhere else? Consider the arguments for doing so.
1. The project is a statement of Islamic conquest. This is Gingrich's position. "The ground zero mosque is a political statement of radical islamist triumph," he tweeted Friday in response to Obama's speech. Debra Burlingame, the co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America, issued a similar statement: "Building a 15-story mosque at Ground Zero is a deliberately provocative act."
These are flat-out lies. The project isn't a "15-story mosque." It's a community center with a library, gym, auditorium, and restaurant. Yes, it will include a mosque. It will also host events to facilitate "multifaith dialogue." It isn't at Ground Zero—it's two blocks away, in what used to be a Burlington Coat Factory.
Deliberately provocative? Radical triumph? Hogwash. Go watch Faisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the project, as he outlines the project to a local community board: "It will establish this community as the place where the moderate Muslim voice condemns terrorism and works for new, peaceful, and harmonious relationships with all New Yorkers." Or listen to Daisy Khan, the imam's wife and executive director, as she explains to radio host Brian Lehrer why they're planning to build the project near Ground Zero:
Imam Faisal has been leading a congregation for the last 27 years in Tribeca, really only 10 blocks from Ground Zero. … We, the members of the Muslim community, want to be part of the rebuilding process. And we feel a special obligation. And it's also our way of giving back to this great city that has given us so much. So we're coming at it from the point of view of wanting to contribute to our society and to take that tragedy of 9/11 and turn it into something very peaceful and hopeful for all of us.
2. Any mosque near Ground Zero is offensive. Responding yesterday to Obama's speech, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, "[I]t's unwise … to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of a terrorist attack."
I'm sorry, Senator: Did you say it's unwise to build a mosque near the site of a terrorist attack?
Others have put the equation more subtly. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., says, "It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero." Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Florida, says, "It is divisive and disrespectful to build a mosque next to the site where 3,000 innocent people were murdered at the hands of Islamic extremism." All these objections rest on the premise that the 9/11 hijackers, by committing mass murder in the name of Islam, made Islam a religion of mass murder. To accept this equation is to give them the power to define the religion of 1 billion people. That—not the rise of pro-American Islamic pluralism—is the conquest the masterminds of 9/11 sought. Don't let them have it.