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.
3. Ground Zero is sacred. Palin, rebutting Obama, asks why the project's sponsors are "so set on building a mosque steps from what you have described, in agreement with me, as 'hallowed ground.' " Her question assumes that the presence of a mosque would defile the sanctity of the site. In other words, unlike Obama, she believes in the kind of sanctity that excludes Islam. That's exactly the kind of sectarian thinking al-Qaida wants to attribute to the United States and cultivate among Muslims.
4. By persisting in the face of opposition, the project's sponsors prove their hostility. King says the project's planners are "abusing" their rights by "needlessly offending" the 9/11 families. Burlingame says, "No one who has lived this history and felt the sting of our country's loss that day can truly believe that putting our families through more wrenching heartache can be an act of peace." Palin asks: "If those who wish to build this Ground Zero mosque are sincerely interested in encouraging positive 'cross-cultural engagement' and dialogue to show a moderate and tolerant face of Islam, then why haven't they recognized that the decision to build a mosque at this particular location is doing just the opposite?"
Note the sleight of hand. First, opponents stirred up discomfort about the project by claiming that its sponsors were radicals and that any mosque near Ground Zero was inherently inappropriate. These claims, as explained above, are false. But that no longer matters. What matters is that people now feel discomfort about the project, and for that reason alone, it should be relocated. The same argument could be made against anything that upsets a local majority: same-sex marriage, Jews in restricted neighborhoods, Christians in Mecca, blacks sitting in the front of the bus. If you can't justify your discomfort, it merits no respect.
5. Terrorists will see the mosque as a triumph. This objection, a Gingrich favorite, has now been taken up by Burlingame. She says of the mosque:
Those who continue to target and kill American civilians and U.S. troops will see it as a symbol of their historic progress at the site of their most bloody victory. Demolishing a building that was damaged by wreckage from one of the hijacked planes in order to build a mosque and Islamic Center will further energize those who regard it as a ratification of their violent and divinely ordered mission: the spread of shariah law. …
This is another derivative and dangerous argument. On this view, the nature of the Islamic center and the motives of its sponsors don't matter. Nor do the perceptions of ordinary Muslims around the world. What matters is al-Qaida's perception. If al-Qaida thinks it's a statement of conquest, we should oppose it. In this way, we make ourselves al-Qaida's slaves.
In short, the arguments against building the project at its planned site are wrong, fallacious, and self-destructive. Obama made the essential point in his speech on Friday:
Let us also remember who we're fighting against, and what we're fighting for. Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al-Qaida's cause is not Islam—it's a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders—they're terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children. In fact, al-Qaida has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion—and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.
That's what we must never forget about 9/11. This was never a war between us and the Muslim world. It's a war between us and al-Qaida. The central battleground in this war isn't Iraq, Afghanistan, or Lower Manhattan. It's Islam. That's the ground al-Qaida is fighting for. It's the ground Imam Rauf wants to take back. He wants to build an Islam that loves America, embraces freedom, and preaches coexistence. Let's help him. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: