Islamophobia is on the march. In New York, opponents of a Muslim community center and mosque are trying to stop its construction near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, is leading a jihad to nationalize the mosque fight and turn it into a culture war over "Islamism." Meanwhile, uprisings against mosque construction have broken out in Tennessee, California, and Wisconsin. "I learned that in 20 years with the rate of the birth population, we will be overtaken by Islam, and their goal is to get people in Congress and the Supreme Court to see that Shariah is implemented," a Tea Party activist tells the New York Times. "I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion. But Islam is not about a religion. It's a political government, and it's 100 percent against our Constitution."
It's true that our Constitution is under threat. But that threat isn't coming from Muslims. They're less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to a report issued last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. To mess with the Constitution, you'd need a majority. The sort of majority you'd find, say, in the backlash against the New York mosque. And you'd need a charismatic ideologue, or at least a shrewd opportunist, to galvanize that majority into a political force. In this case, Gingrich.
A number of Web sites, bloggers, and newspapers—TPM, Salon, Wonkette, Matt Yglesias, Amy Sullivan, Alan Jacobs, the Times, the Baltimore Sun, and many others—have stepped forward to challenge Gingrich's demagoguery. Now Gingrich and his spokesman are fighting back. In particular, they've targeted Slate. But their answers only clarify the danger they represent.
Gingrich's spokesman, Rick Tyler, has responded in Slate to an article I wrote last week. The article said that Gingrich's campaign against the New York mosque serves the interests of Osama Bin Laden. It helps al-Qaida convince Muslims that our "war on terrorism" is really a war on Islam.
Not true, says Tyler. He writes: "Aligning the former Speaker's truthful remarks about our enemies and his opposition to an ill-conceived and nefarious plan to build a mosque on New York's most hallowed ground with those of Osama bin Ladin's pack of lies is intellectually dishonest."
There's that telltale phrase again: a mosque. It's the same phrase Gingrich used a week ago: "It is simply grotesque to erect a mosque at the site of the most visible and powerful symbol of the horrible consequences of radical Islamist ideology." The same phrase Sarah Palin used: "To build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks." The same phrase Rudy Giuliani used when he called it "a mosque that's in exactly the wrong place." The same phrase Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican presidential aspirant, used this weekend: "I'm strongly opposed to the idea of putting a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero."
Gingrich, Palin, Giuliani, and their followers keep trying to dress up their complaint as a question about who's running or funding the New York project. But the truth keeps slipping out: They're against "a mosque"—any mosque—near the "sacred" and "hallowed ground" of the World Trade Center.
Here's Gingrich on July 21: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." And again: "No mosque. No self deception. No surrender." And again on Aug. 3, in a TV exchange with Bill O'Reilly: "I noticed in your last interview, you could not get your guest to respect the overwhelming majority of family members from 9/11 who do not want to see a mosque near ground zero."
Check out Gingrich's interview on Good Morning America last Monday. George Stephanopoulos begins by noting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "said that she's not all nervous about the mid-terms. Should she be?" Gingrich replies:
With 9.5 percent unemployment, with a majority of Americans wanting to repeal Obama's health-care plan, with a majority of Americans favoring Arizona over the Obama administration on immigration, with the majority of Americans opposing a mosque at Ground Zero, with a majority of Americans feeling that the stimulus failed and that the Democratic Party increasingly is the party of job killers, I think that that's what's going to be the key this fall.
No need to ask about the mosque. Gingrich brings it up himself. Why? Because a "majority of Americans" oppose it. It's a handy new wedge issue. In his rebuttals to Slate and the Baltimore Sun, Tyler makes the same point: "New Yorkers oppose the 'Cordoba House Initiative' project by a whopping 61-26 percent."
Indeed they do. And why do they oppose it? Look at the poll questions they were answering:
1) How closely have you followed the news about a proposed Muslim Community Center to be constructed two blocks from ground zero, the former location of the World Trade Center?
2) Supporters of the proposed community center, known as the Cordoba House, say it would demonstrate the presence of moderate Muslims in New York as well as serve as a monument to religious tolerance. Opponents say the project is an offense to the memory of those killed in the attacks on 9/11 and displays unacceptable insensitivity. Do you tend to agree with the supporters, the opponents or do you think they both have a legitimate position?
3) Do you support or oppose the proposal to build the Cordoba House, a 15 story Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan 2 blocks from the site of the World Trade Center?
The questions say nothing about who's running or funding the project. They say it's being presented as a way to "demonstrate the presence of moderate Muslims in New York" and "serve as a monument to religious tolerance." The only contrary argument offered is that it's "an offense to the memory of those killed in the attacks on 9/11 and displays unacceptable insensitivity." Given the choice between these two arguments, respondents side with the project's opponents by a margin of 38 to 21 percent. And when they're told that it'll be 15 stories tall and two blocks from Ground Zero, they overwhelmingly oppose it.
This is the real argument behind the campaign against the New York community center: It's Muslim, it's big, and it's too close to where a bunch of Muslims killed a bunch of us.
Mosques, like churches, may deserve scrutiny on a case-by-case basis. It's possible to raise questions about the people running and funding the New York project without rejecting a mosque near Ground Zero per se. As far as I can tell, this is the position of Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Rick Lazio, the former Republican congressman running for governor of New York. But it isn't Gingrich's position. Gingrich's position is that no mosque should be built near Ground Zero, period.
It's particularly rich to see Gingrich and Tyler accuse the imam behind the project, Faisal Abdul Rauf, of radicalism, belligerence, and fomenting terrorism. Watch the video of Rauf at a press conference two months ago. In it, he declares: "We condemn terrorism. We recognize it exists within our faith community. But we're committed to eradicate it." A whole wing of Rauf's Web site is dedicated to "Women's Empowerment," though that hasn't stopped Gingrich from associating him with "stoning women." Rauf's failure to condemn Hamas or Hezbollah is a symptom of timidity, not belligerence. His exact statement on that topic was: "I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy." At worst, these are the words of a wimp, not a warmonger.
The true religious warrior in this fight is Gingrich. Look at the title of his new book: To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. In it, he depicts a mortal struggle between the foreign "culture of secularism" and the deeply American "culture of religion." He ridicules liberals for opposing school prayer and a cross on public land. He says the Declaration of Independence implies that "man must obey an order of justice God Himself has instituted." On the Web site of their organization, Renewing American Leadership, Gingrich and Tyler proclaim that their mission is "to preserve America's Judeo-Christian heritage." And in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute a week ago, Gingrich proudly quoted FDR's wartime address equating democracy with Christianity.
If the prospect of losing our Constitution to religious government frightens you, don't worry about the tiny Muslim-American minority. Worry about the anti-mosque majority Gingrich is working to mobilize. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: