Where are the Republicans who will reject pandering and prejudice?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

BROADLY SPEAKING, there seem to be three strands of argument against building a mosque or Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

The first is that the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and killed almost 3,000 people there in 2001 really did represent Islam and that to pretend otherwise is a dangerous delusion. The second is that, no, al-Qaeda does not speak for Islam, but many people -- including survivors and relatives of the victims -- naturally associate the two, and therefore it would be insensitive to locate anything Islamic so close to the scene of the crime. The third, for many politicians, seems to be that most Americans oppose construction of the mosque, and therefore opposition is useful (for Republicans on the attack) or safe (for Democrats cowering in a corner).

All three of these are objectionable. It is true that more Muslims around the world than one might wish sympathize with some of Osama bin Laden's thinking, view America as an aggressor nation and accept as justified some of what Americans view as terrorism. But it's also true that many more Muslims reject such thinking, see Islam as a fundamentally peaceful religion and view al-Qaeda as foreign and repugnant. As Muslims struggle with how to adapt their religion to the challenges of modernity, Americans should be showing respect for those in the second camp, not lumping them together with the terrorists and their supporters.

And if the Muslims who want to build a community center are no more responsible for, or supportive of, the attacks of Sept. 11 than any other Americans, how can their plans be "insensitive"? The hurt feelings must reflect misunderstanding or prejudice on the part of the objectors, and the right response to misunderstanding and prejudice is education, not appeasement.

As to the third strand, it is of course repugnant, and there are a few politicians who have been willing to say so. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, for example, the Democrat whose congressional district includes Ground Zero, has been forthright. He is not alone. But he has too little company. President Obama said some of the right things Friday night, but by Saturday he had flinched. And Republican leaders -- and we use that term loosely -- have been almost universally eager to exploit the issue for political purposes. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie objected to both sides using the issue "as a political football," but he is the rare exception.

Former president George W. Bush has shied away from political commentary since stepping down in 2009, and for understandable reasons. It's a sign of respect for the office of the presidency to allow one's successor to do his best without having to hear carping from his predecessor.

But this is a case where Mr. Bush's own party could benefit from a dose of adult supervision. As president, Mr. Bush never stopped making the distinction between Muslims and the terrorists who pervert their religion. As a politician, he understood the value to the Republican Party of reaching out to minorities, including Muslims. A word from Texas right now could offer his would-be heirs a useful lesson.

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