A mosque in a hard place

Imagine Bible-burning parties. Imagine they’re not only called for, but enthusiastically advertised – by religious leaders. Imagine the rest of the country reacting with vehement opposition to your new church because they don’t like where it’s being built, and choose to ascribe to it symbolism you never intended.

Imagine others picketing another church, hundreds of miles away, because it’s planning an expansion. Imagine vehicles at this church’s construction site being set on fire by a person who, though too cowardly to reveal his or her face, wants to make sure you get a “message.”

Imagine if all of this was driven by fear on the part of extremists who use your genuinely held beliefs to advance their murderous political agenda. Imagine being the hapless target of that fear.

You don’t have to imagine it. It’s happening in America. Just substitute “mosque” where I’ve said “church” and “Qu’ran” where I’ve said “Bible.”

The plans to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero in New York have been in the works for quite some time. In 2009, talking head Laura Ingraham told Imam Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, on Fox, “I can’t find many who really have a problem with it. . .I like what you’re trying to do.”

How the tune has changed! The punditry has ramped up public fury. The fear seems to be that the terrorists will enshrine the center as a “victory monument.”

This fear is baldly exploited by North Carolina congressional candidate Renee Ellmers, whose first TV ad states, “After the Muslims conquered Jerusalem and Cordoba and Constantinople, they built victory mosques. And now they want to build a mosque by Ground Zero.”

The xenophobic, fear-mongering ad continues by criticizing Ellmers’ incumbent opponent: “Where does Bob Etheridge stand? He won’t say.”

One of the biggest problems with that line of thinking is that “the terrorists” aren’t building the proposed center. It’s being built for American Muslims, who somehow got this nutty idea that the First Amendment protects expressions of their faith, too. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Nor are all terrorists Muslim. (Tim McVeigh, anyone?) It is ironic that the very people who are so concerned about what terrorists think are the ones imbuing the mosque and center with pro-al Qaeda symbolism.

Thing about al Qaeda, it’s run by a sociopath, and sociopaths are the ultimate opportunists. We cannot control how bin Laden’s propaganda machine spins this issue, but we can sure as hell send him the message that we’re not afraid. Not of him, and certainly not of a building just because it happens to be a mosque.

As (conservative!) columnist Kathleen Parker said, nobody has the right to never have his or her feelings hurt. (Heaven knows that’s what I thought some time ago, when Muslims elsewhere in the world staged violent protests because a Danish newspaper printed cartoons of Muhammad.) People do have the right to worship freely, to draw cartoons. And to build mosques.

Yet some residents of Murfreesboro, Tenn., don’t seem to grasp that. They’re opposing plans to expand a mosque that’s been standing in Murfreesboro for 30 years. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro wants to move from its rented space, and received approval in May to build a mosque.

The opposition has been ugly. Television footage showed one protest sign reading, in essence, that Muslims could build a mosque in American when a church could be built in Saudi Arabia. This shows a mind that is impervious to simple logic: This is not Saudi Arabia. We have the right to worship as we wish, and we’re supposed to be better than the tyrannical Wahabbists that control the petrol-kingdom half a world away.

Then there’s this shockingly low moment for the Tennessee opposition:

Construction equipment at the new mosque site was torched; arson was confirmed. The arsonist has not been caught, but on the surface, it seems as though someone is trying to intimidate Muslims through criminal acts. If that is the case, the arson is not only a distasteful display of intolerance, it’s ironic: This is how the terrorists operate.

Intolerant dumb-assity elsewhere:

A Gainesville, Fla., church giddily announced a Qu’ran burning party for Sept. 11. Pastor Terry Jones said he wanted to show the world that he thinks Islam is “of the devil.” Conveniently, once Jones had exhausted his 15 minutes of fame and had been excoriated by people around the world, “God” suddenly told him to call off his little bonfire.

We claim to be the “land of the free,” yet the more vocal among us betray a primitive ignorance-based fear of objects – buildings and books – which they believe need to be destroyed so they can feel “safe.” After more than two centuries as a free republic, and the benefit of millennia of history showing the futility of religious warfare, this is how far we’ve come?

I don’t want to believe that. I want to believe that most Americans understand we can’t control what terrorists (of any stripe) think or do. We can, however, control what we think, how we react, and we can uphold the beliefs that make this country strong.

Freedom is not free, says the bumper sticker, and it’s not risk-free, either.

We can remember why America is a better place to live than, say, Saudi Arabia. At a minimum, we can truly reflect on “what would Jesus do” and come up with something other than burning the Qu’ran, or trying to burn equipment at a Tennessee mosque site where our countrymen want to gather and exercise the same rights we exercise when we go to church o Sunday.

Standing firm for religious freedom isn’t about trying to persuade al Qaeda that we’re not such a bad lot, so leave us alone, please. It’s about understanding that our constitutional rights exist for all of us, at all times, or they don’t really exist for any of us.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.

From Katharhynn Heidelberg.