Just days after the Twin Towers were destroyed in 2001, President George W. Bush set the tone that ought to govern U.S. attitudes in the New York mosque controversy today.
While visiting the Islamic Center of Washington, he declared that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. ... Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
He went on to say that American Muslims “need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
Why Bush won’t speak up now on behalf of the Muslim community center at the center of the New York controversy, I don’t know.
But what he said then -- even as he was launching a war against the Taliban and al-Qaida -- ought to guide attitudes and policy today.
Our war is with radical Islamists who use terror and preach violent jihad -- not with the religion of Islam.
It seems a distinction so simple and obvious that everyone ought to get it -- especially someone as smart as former speaker (and apparent presidential aspirant) Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
“Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington,” he said, and “we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There is no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.”
For all his erudition, Dr. Gingrich (Ph.D., Tulane University) does have a tendency to pop off demagogically when the opportunity arises -- as in calling Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Sonia Sotomayor a Latina “racist,” a remark he later withdrew.
In a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich himself said, “I believe it is very important to draw a distinction between radical jihadists, which I define as those who want to impose Shariah (strict Islamic law), and those Muslims who seek to practice their religion within a framework of the modern world.”
There is little evidence that the imam sponsoring the 13-story center two blocks from Ground Zero, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a radical or jihadist, or that locating the mosque there is -- as Gingrich charged -- “an act of triumphalism.”
In his book, “What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America,” Rauf specifically declared that “killing innocent people is always wrong -- and no argument or excuse, no matter how deeply believed, can ever make it right.”
Rauf has been judged by both the Bush and Obama administrations to be a voice of moderate, nonviolent Islam and has been sent on State Department missions overseas.
Critics seeking to make Rauf out to be a radical cite his 2001 remark on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that “United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened” and that “in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”
But lots of U.S. conservatives, too, think that the U.S. erred in supporting Islamists battling the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and then leaving the country to be taken over by the Taliban and al-Qaida.
And if Rauf opposes U.S. policies in the Middle East -- especially our support for Israel -- that’s a political matter Americans strongly disagree with (as do I), but it does not make him an extremist.
Gingrich and other opponents cite the name of the project -- Cordoba Initiative -- as evidence that Rauf wants to foster worldwide Muslim supremacy such as what once existed in Spain.
But Rauf’s website declares that “the name Cordoba was chosen carefully to reflect a period of time during which Islam played a monumental role in the enrichment of human civilization and knowledge.
“A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews and Christians co-existed and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain.”
The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, declares Islam to be “a religion of war” because Muslims once conquered much of Europe.
It’s fair to remember, however, that the same year -- 1492 -- that Christians reconquered Spain, they expelled the entire Jewish population of the country, too. Muslims have no monopoly on violence.
Not all opponents of the Ground Zero mosque are motivated by anti-Islamic prejudice, to be sure. But relatives of 9/11 victims who object still are confusing Islam with terrorism.
They’d like the mosque to move somewhere else -- but how far away from Ground Zero is acceptable? If two blocks is too close, would four be better?
Logically, if the mosque is meant as an exercise in “triumphalism,” it ought not be allowed in New York City at all.
The fact is that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had it exactly right when he said, “Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and Americans.
“We would betray our values -- and play into our enemies’ hands -- if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave in to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists -- and we should not stand for that.”
And President Barack Obama had it right (the first time) when he said that America’s bedrock dedication to religious freedom “includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan.”
It’s a shame that Republican howls caused him to backtrack on the statement. And it’s a shame so many Republicans have forgotten the distinction between Islam and extremism so clearly delineated by Bush.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.