washingtonpost.com
No compromise on religious freedom

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; A15

When it comes to the mosque that's neither too close to Ground Zero for its proponents nor far enough away for its opponents, the disturbing word "compromise" is now being tossed around. It has been suggested by New York Gov. David Paterson, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan and, in Sunday's Post, Karen Hughes, once an important adviser to George W. Bush. These are all well-meaning people, but they do not understand that in this case, the difference between compromise and defeat is nonexistent.

This is not a complicated matter. If you believe that an entire religion of upward of a billion followers attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, then it is understandable that locating a mosque near the fallen World Trade Center might be upsetting. But the facts are otherwise. Islam was not in on the attack -- just a sliver of believers. That being the case, those people with legitimate hurt feelings are mistaken. They need our understanding, not our indulgence.

If, on the other hand, you do not believe that the attack was launched by an entire religion, you have a moral duty to support the creation of the Islamic center. Lots of people fall into this category -- or say they do -- and still protest the mosque. They include Newt Gingrich, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio and that Twittering Twit of the Tundra, Sarah Palin. They indulge in a kind of pornography of analogy -- a bit of demagogic buffoonery that is becoming more and more obvious. They pretend that they have a solemn obligation to defend the (powerful) majority from the demands of the (powerless) minority and champion people whose emotions are based on a misreading of the facts.

Those of us who are of a certain age remember the days when African Americans and their champions were being cautioned to go slow, compromise. They were being told to consider the tender feelings of whites, no matter how ugly their racism, and protect their dewy Scarlett O'Hara way of life. Leading politicians espoused this course, President Eisenhower among them. Wrong was somehow to become a little less so, but right would be painfully postponed. What was compromise? The middle of the bus?

From that era I exhume a term: moral suasion. Repeatedly, civil rights activists urged Eisenhower to use the bully pulpit to guide the country on a moral course, to set an example. For the longest time, Ike refused to budge. The hero of Normandy somehow forgot how to lead until Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus forced the president to literally call out the troops. The era remains a huge blot on Eisenhower's otherwise exemplary record.

Now something similar is happening. It's not merely that unscrupulous politicians are demagoguing the mosque issue, it is also that most others have kept their mouths shut. The Post editorial board suggested that Bush, who has always shown great leadership on interfaith issues, speak out. Hughes, who argued the case for the mosque and then advocated building it elsewhere, should have followed her own logic. And the archbishop, instead of urging compromise, should have urged his congregants to show tolerance. He's not a labor mediator. He's a moral leader.

Over the years, thousands of priests have abused many thousands of children. This is a lamentable fact. Yet no rational person can possibly believe that all priests are pedophiles and that a plan to erect a church should or could be opposed by victims of priestly pedophilia. We know the difference between the acts of individuals -- even many of them -- and the dogma or beliefs of an entire religion. I am a Jew, but do not judge me by Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims in Hebron.

Appearing on ABC's "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," Daisy Khan, a founder of the mosque (and the wife of the imam), rejected any compromise. She was right to do so because to compromise is to accede, even a bit, to the arguments of bigots, demagogues or the merely uninformed. This is no longer her fight. The fight is now all of ours.

It has become something of a cliche, I know, but no one ever put this sort of thing better than William Butler Yeats in his poem "The Second Coming." "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Some passionate intensity from the best is past due.

cohenr@washpost.com

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