In defense of the soul of America

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“We are engaged in a battle for the soul of America,” wrote TV actor Joseph Phillips in a recent Daily Caller opinion piece. Apparently the building of a mosque dedicated to the principles of integration, tolerance and inter-faith understanding two blocks from Ground Zero would mean America losing its soul.

Phillips’ argument goes thus: if the Muslims who want to build the mosque were really tolerant and understanding, they would build the mosque somewhere else, and anyway the only Americans supporting the mosque are leftists who just hate America. In fact, about half of Phillips’ article opposing the mosque is dedicated to a rant against leftists. An argument can be correct even if you don’t like the people making it.

He adds:

“It is important to point out that there have been no pronouncements from opponents of the mosque that the American Society for Muslim Advancement does not have a right to build the mosque wherever they wish.  Opponents have simply asked that the building not be built in that location. What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.”

While Phillips recognizes Muslims’ constitutional right to build the mosque he can’t help but wonder why the federal government can’t step in to prevent it – a point that totally undermines his recognition of the rights of American (sic) Muslims. “I am fascinated that the same people who have been able to find a Constitutional right to government control of education, health care, and the energy industry are unable to divine from that same document any rational basis for the government to prevent a mosque from being built on Ground Zero,” he writes. So much for the constitutional rights of Muslims – if Phillips could have his way the feds would step in.

Why exactly the building of a mosque would be of such an affront necessitating the intervention of the federal government is not explained overtly, except for that talk of “offense and emotional injury.” So all we get in terms of true substance is a tautological argument – the mosque is an affront because it has caused offense. And then his article relies on the “secondary” argument: the mosque should be opposed because “hard-core leftists” who “do not respect America’s traditions or institutions” support it — in other words, traitors.

So, presumably Mayor Bloomberg is a leftist traitor. And apparently I am as well, even though I am an American by choice and not by accident. By the by, my 25 years of writing and journalism has seldom been characterized as leftist.

I don’t disagree with Phillips that this fight over the mosque is a fight for the soul of America. From my point of view the fight is over whether the country will stay true not only to the letter but more importantly the spirit of the Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution – the bedrocks of the United States of America. I can’t recall reading anywhere in either document any comments suggesting either that Muslims should not be allowed to build mosques or that they should not be permitted to build one in a place deemed sensitive or out-of-bounds by others. Yes, we have local zoning rules nowadays but the so-called Ground Zero mosque apparently does not infringe them.

In fact, the First Amendment of the Constitution is uncompromising when it comes to the practice of religion – any religion and not just religions deemed “American” by Phillips or anyone else for that matter. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Rights are at their most important when most under threat, when the clamor is at its loudest to deny them. Alas, when the Patriot Act was being forced through, too few people were raising a hue and cry about the tremendous and disturbing civil rights violations it brought with it. Anyone who truly values the Constitution should be supporting the building of the mosque – and this has nothing to do with the left-right spectrum of American politics, or shouldn’t have.

The real affront that is going on in the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque is that of seeing the First Amendment as unimportant or something that one is loyal to when convenient rather than uniformly and consistently.

There are other affronts, too. The opposition to the mosque relies on two other arguments, sometimes made openly and sometimes issued more covertly. It relies heavily on the notions that American Muslims are somehow not real Americans and that all Muslims are somehow collectively responsible for 9/11 and the odious Osama bin Laden.

This is exactly what is implied when Newt Gingrich argues, as he did the other day, this:

“Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a sight next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.”

These are emotive but erroneous comparisons: German Nazism was a political ideology and Japan is a nation – Islam is a religion with Americans who are also adherents. The real comparison to make would be German Nazism with Al Qaeda – and as far as I am aware no one has shown that the proposed mosque is going to support Al Qaeda or the philosophy espoused by Osama bin Laden.

So now we have the added affronts from those who oppose the mosque – namely, their suggestion that there are different classes of Americans – some real and others not – and that a whole religion, or all the adherents of a religion, should be held accountable and responsible for the actions of a small minority claiming to speak in the name of that religion. That is the kind of language and thinking of Osama bin Laden and his medieval ilk. Are we to allow him and the radical Islamists to change us – to make us the mirror image of them? If we do so, then we have allowed him a victory and handed him something even more damaging to us than 9/11. We would have added to the risk of a war of religions.

And that is precisely the point that answers Phillips’ when he writes: “What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.” The Ground Zero mosque should go ahead in defiant answer to Osama bin Laden and to all those who would damage the soul of America and who fail to understand that you can’t pick and choose when it comes to the fundamental rights announced by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. It should go ahead because the people who want to build it are American and want commemorate those who died at 9/11. It should go ahead because we don’t believe in collective punishment, unlike Al Qaeda.

Gingrich and those Republicans opposing the mosque may think they have stumbled on a Willie Horton moment ahead of the mid-term elections. But it is a Willie Horton moment profoundly damaging to the soul of America and one that they may well regret indulging in.

Jamie Dettmer, a former political writer at the Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Washington Times, and the New York Sun, blogs at jamiedettmer.com.

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