The Downtown Mosque and America's Moment of Shame

The three-word phrase - Ground Zero Mosque - has the dubious distinction of being inaccurate not once but twice. The project is not actually planned for Ground Zero; it's planned to go up two blocks away, without even a view of the former site of the Twin Towers. And it's not, strictly speaking, a mosque; it's an Islamic cultural center that includes a swimming pool, basketball court, restaurant and a prayer room. But for all its inaccuracies, the term was used to to fuel protest and debate across America this year. The Man Behind the Mosque PICTURES: Most Loaded Phrases in Politics CBS

Protesters outside of the building that is the proposed site of the Park51 mosque and cultural center,
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The controversy over plans to build a mosque in lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site continues into yet another week. If this was a black-and-white movie, a cinematic hero in the Gary Cooper-Jimmy Stewart mold would ride into the picture just about now to dispense a dose of American common sense and stamp out our fears.

Too bad the real world can't borrow a page from the silver screen. Still, we are the inheritors of a rich tradition of political pragmatism. That counts for a lot in uncertain times. Or it should. Over the decades, when things threatened to get out of hand, that shared common good sense has usually been enough to help us keep our bearings.

But I wonder whether we're going to remain true to our better angels this time around. Instead of Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, the media pulpit is being hijacked by the shrill and the stupid, exploiting the moment for predictably pedestrian political or financial gain (or both).

As Bob Dylan wrote, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. The timing was surely coincidental but the faux controversy ginned up over the proposed mosque - planned on the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory outlet - came as a Gainsville, Fla., church said it still plans to burn copies of the Quran even after local city officials denied a burn permit. Repeat: They want to burn copies of the Quran.

This may be a fringe group but the ugly motive they embraced didn't materialize in a vacuum. Politicians are, well, politicians and from Murphy Brown to the Terry Schiavo case, there's a contemporary history annotated by the use of the latest "outrage" to work up passions for political gain. One assumes that the few grown-ups left in the GOP leadership know what's going to happen if they let the hacks continue to fan the flames. Nearly one in five Americans now believe that that President Obama is a Muslim. For coming attractions of this fall's "Obama-as-alien" theme, check out this innuendo-filled piece by Byron York. See how this works: Obama - make that Barack Hussein Obama - is a secret Muslim and the Muslims, as Newt Gingrich has pointed out are "trying to make a case about supremacy" by building a mosque "right next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists."

Gingrich, mentioned as a possible 2012 presidential candidate, also had no problem reaching for the Nazi analogy to argue against the mosque:

"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."

Another out-of-office politician, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who also is mentioned as a potential future presidential candidate, picked up on the same theme, casting this as part of a larger offensive on the part of political Islam to advance Shariah law.

"...what we have is an Imam who believes not only in the "religious" part of Islam, the faith and the relationship with Allah. What he is trying to accomplish is political Islam, so he has a political agenda which is Shariah. That's the most important thing for people to understand. That unlike Christianity which is a faith that is about the next world, the next kingdom, the relationship between you and your maker. And that while there certainly are moral components to Christianity that apply to living your life like the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments, there is not a political code, there is not a governmental structure ... there is not the kind of detailed structure of how to run a worldly kingdom in Christianity that there is in Islam and that's what Shariah is, and that's what this man is advocating. So you have not just someone who's advocating a religious doctrine but he is also advancing a political doctrine under the guise and protection of religion, and that is problematic.
Santorum doesn't have the guts to spell it out too bluntly but his reading of Islamic jurisprudence points to the conclusion that Islam's fundamental charge is to force the submission of the Dar al Harb which exists here in the U.S. So if this religion-cum-ideology is fundamentally hostile to American pluralism, why indict this one imam - they're all part-and-parcel of the same conspiracy. Call it a Muslim version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In this sort of atmosphere, is it any wonder that political pygmies are tempted to play for short-term gain? The New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio is now out there hammering Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque construction as a terrorist sympathizer. ( For the record, the New York Police Department last week told the Associated Press that it had "identified no law enforcement issues related to the proposed mosque"). As usual, the Democrats don't have a stomach for this fight. Harry Reid, facing a strong challenge for his Senate seat, this week broke with the president this week and said the mosque should get built elsewhere. At least he had the good grace not to paint them as the enemy.

Even if they apparently represent the other for so many "real" Americans.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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