President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, "All we have to fear is fear itself." He was right; left unbridled, fear will erode our commitment to freedom and coax us into exchanging liberty for safety, even to the point of disregarding the rights of our fellow citizens. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt succumbed to the very fear he warned of when he suspended the rights of 120,000 American citizens; for no other reason than their resemblance to our aggressors, Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed in internment camps. That national sin remains a stain upon our history.
Today, America's politicians are willing to cede our founding principles to irrational fear once more. This fear targets Muslim Americans and their religious liberties. The fact that radical Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center, some say, is reason enough to deny moderate Muslims the right to build a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero.
Often erroneously called the "Ground Zero mosque," the planned community center, Park51, will include a theater, fitness center, basketball court, swimming pool and prayer room. The sponsors of the project hope to use the center to promote tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
Politicians hope to use the proposed center to promote their own careers. Obviously pandering for votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stated his opposition to the project last week. But Reid, a Mormon, should understand better than anyone the need to protect even the rights of those whose religious views do not procure popular favor. Perhaps not.
Initially, President Obama expressed support for the project. Once his statement began to attract the ire of popular opinion, however, he retreated from the issue and made a half-hearted attempt to retract his prior endorsement.
On the other side of the political spectrum, many in the Republican party are resorting to all out demagoguery. Playing on raw emotions left over from 9/11, some in the GOP have begun demonizing even moderate Muslims. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went as far as to argue that the United States should not allow a mosque to be built in Manhattan "so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." This absurd moral equivalence contends that the United States should bestow only as much freedom upon its Muslim citizens as Saudi Arabia bestows upon its Christian and Jewish citizens—in other words, none.
If they were smart, Republicans would model their approach after President George W. Bush's unwavering support of moderate Islam. By treating the attacks of 9/11 as an attack on Muslim Americans as well, Bush drew a fine distinction between radical jihadists and peaceful Muslims. "They love America just as much as I do," he said of Islamic leaders days after the attack. He had his flaws, but where Obama wobbles on the rights of Muslim citizens, Bush stood resolutely.
Yet the same people who sent our men and women to die for the liberation of Iraqi Muslims now wish to deny American Muslims their constitutional guarantee to religious liberty.
They would deny Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the plans for Park51, the right to build on private property, too. Critics of the project have accused Raul of everything from harboring anti-American sentiments to sympathizing with terrorists. Rauf, however, has only ever sought to mend relations between Islam and the West.
In 2003, Rauf spoke at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was killed by Pakistani terrorists. There, he affirmed his admiration for the Jewish and Christian faiths: "If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind, and soul," he said, "and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one."
Despite Rauf's reconciliatory overtones, fear mongers would have us believe him to be a supporter of unholy jihad. Such fear-engendered slander serves only to distort reality. Compassion and understanding should be shown to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, but at the same time, we must never permit sensitivity to return us to the mistakes of our past. So basic a right as the "right of the free exercise" of religious worship should never be surrendered to fear.