So what's the big deal? Muslims already pray in the Pentagon, which along with the obliterated World Trade Towers was the other successful terrorist target on September 11, 2001.
Why the high dudgeon about locating an Islamic community center — it will have space for prayer, but will not be a mosque — about the same distance from Ground Zero as New York Dolls, a strip club?
Ask Allen Roth.
Roth is a right-wing political consultant who saw an opportunity to rouse the darker instincts of the American public. He has succeeded. Polls show that seven out of 10 Americans oppose the project, which is called Park51.
Before Roth worked his behind-the-scenes magic directing the impressionable mainstream media to that segment of the blogosphere populated by haters and cranks, Park51 attracted little publicity and raised few eyebrows.
Once Rupert Murdoch's New York Post sank its fangs into the story, however, it's been "Mosque from Hell" 24/7. There is a touch of irony in the Post leading the attack. Late last year, while guest-hosting Fox News' O'Reilly Factor show (another Murdoch enterprise), conservative talking head Laura Ingraham interviewed the wife of the imam sponsoring Park51. Ingraham's conclusion: "I like what you're trying to do."
It matters not, however, whether anyone approves or disapproves of the construction of Park51. The Sufi Muslim congregation (considered, by the way, to be moderate) has the same right to build there as if they were traditional Baptists, liberal Unitarians, or Hassidic Jews.
In asserting the guaranteed right to free worship, however, many constitutional champions have been too quick to dismiss the concerns of that segment of the public honestly troubled by some aspects of Islam.
Generalizing about Islam is a tricky business. There are somewhere between 1.2 to 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. Only Christianity, with an estimated 2.1 billion followers, is larger. But there are huge diversities within both belief systems.
Even if it were possible to forget about the 9/11 attacks by radical Islamists and the foiled terrorist attempts since, the United States is engaged in wars in two Muslim countries and it would be unnatural, perhaps even otherworldly, for anxiety about those conflicts not to spill over into a wide range of domestic discussions and debates.
And then there is the obvious: Islamic terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are not just anti-Israel, but also deeply anti-Semitic; Islamic radical leaders such as Iran's ever-present Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Al-Qaeda's elusive Osama bin Laden are not just anti-Semitic, but deeply opposed to western liberal values; and the Wahabist clerical establishment of Saudi Arabia is violently opposed to everyone — even Muslims — who do not follow their darkly medieval conception of Islam.
Can the right of free religious expression be reconciled — or at least weighed — with legitimate fears of militant Islam? In this case, that is a long shot. The right-wing hate machine has once again performed with perverse efficiency.
Lionel Trilling once wrote of the "moral imperative to be intelligent." The imperative here is to remember that our constitution has within it provisions that are — by their very nature — challenging. Democracy is at times a chore. And diversity can be uncomfortable. But that is what this nation is about.