Islamophobia threatens religious freedom

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared Aug. 17 on The Washington Post’s Web site. Reprinted by permission.

President Obama, after saying that building a mosque at ground zero fit our “commitment to religious freedom,” backtracked, saying he wasn’t commenting on the “wisdom” of building it so close to “hallowed ground.”

A Fox News poll showed that while 61% of Americans believe that Cordoba House has a constitutional right to build near ground zero, 64% believe it is not appropriate to do so.

Does Obama’s hedging show a lack of ethical convictions? Does Hamas’ endorsement change the debate? What is behind public opposition to the site? Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?

Let’s be honest. Much of the controversy surrounding the so-called ground zero mosque is fueled by Islamophobia — a fear and loathing of Islam that is spreading rapidly in the United States.

Since 9/11, demonization of Islam has become a cottage industry in America, aided and abetted by some evangelical leaders and a growing number of politicians. Much like the anti-Catholic hysteria of the 19th century, the current outbreak of Islamophobia is based on the paranoid fantasy that Islam in America is a threat to democracy and freedom.

The real threat, however, is to the religious freedom of Muslims in America — their freedom to practice their faith openly and freely without intimidation or fear.

While media attention is focused on the planned Islamic center in Manhattan, other more ominous anti-mosque protests are taking place throughout the country. From Temecula, Calif., to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to Bridgeport, Conn., angry Americans are rallying this summer to deny Muslims the right to build and maintain houses of worship.

“Islam is not a religion,” warn the anti-mosque leaders in Temecula. “It is a worldwide movement meant (sic) on domination of the world.”

Islamophobia on this scale is no longer confined to the far-right fringe. In communities like Murfreesboro, tea party activists — and the political candidates they support — are at the forefront of the anti-mosque campaign. In Bridgeport and other places, Christian activists are leading the charge.

Nationally, people like Pamela Geller, leader of “Stop the Islamization of America,” pop up regularly on Fox News and elsewhere as authoritative commentators on the ground zero mosque debate. A popular speaker at tea party conventions and other venues, Geller calls Islam “the religion of barbarism” that “inspired Hitler and the Nazis.”

By highlighting the anger and prejudice behind the anti-mosque campaigns, I don’t mean to suggest that all opposition to the Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan is inspired by Islamophobia. Reasonable people can affirm religious freedom while simultaneously raising questions about the wisdom of the proposed center. I happen to disagree with them, but I recognize the sincerity of their concerns.

Geller and her ilk, however, aren’t remotely interested in having a civil discussion about appropriate development near the 9/11 site. Instead, they are taking advantage of the “ground zero mosque” conflict — as well as irrational fear of mosques in other communities — to advance their campaign to turn the “war on terrorism” into a “war on Islam.”

It’s time for people of conscience to look beyond what’s happening in Manhattan and pay closer attention to the growing anti-mosque movement around the nation. Although extreme voices now dominate the debate in many local communities, I am hopeful that most Americans will have the courage to stand up for their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens by speaking out for religious freedom.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail:

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