Facts matter, and they seem to be in short supply in this ugly fight.
It's also important to note that the controversy over the center, which has now engulfed the president, is only one of several that have flared up across the country over mosque construction or expansion plans. Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, California - all have seen fights over mosque proposals. There are even two other New York mosque projects, in Brooklyn and Staten Island, that have provoked attacks and demonstrations.
There have also been attacks on existing mosques, not just planned ones. A bomb exploded during services at a mosque in Jacksonville, Fla., and there have been reports of arson and vandalism of mosques in Texas and Tennessee. (No one was hurt in the incidents, which are being investigated.)
Murfreesboro, Tenn., is witnessing a particularly ugly construction standoff, with many of the same features as the fight in Lower Manhattan. Mainstream politicians running in tough primary races have attacked the project there, and so have grassroots activists affiliated with local tea party groups.
One Tennessee congressional candidate charged that the mosque's proponents were foreign radicals. (They're not.) The state's lieutenant governor, a candidate for governor, claimed Islam is a "cult" that doesn't deserve First Amendment protections. A statement by the Wilson County Tea Party, which is in the thick of the Murfreesboro fight, wondered: "Is Islam nothing more than a front for terrorism?"
In the ground zero controversy, many of the earliest and most vociferous opponents of the Islamic center - known as Park51 after its address on Park Place - were high-profile grassroots activists, including Mark Williams, then-leader of a group called the Tea Party Express. He labeled the center a "monument" for the "worship of the terrorists' monkey-god."
One key opposition group, Stop the Islamization of America, is well-known for the inflammatory rhetoric of its leaders. They include Pamela Geller, who didn't bother providing a shred of evidence when she suggested that funding for the center could be "tied to jihad or terror." (There is no funding at the moment.) Geller has called for a ground zero rally on the anniversary of 9/11, and she has been touting Geert Wilders, a virulently anti-Muslim Dutch politician, as a featured speaker.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has highlighted Geller associate John Joseph Jay as "truly vicious." According to the center, Jay wrote in his (all-lowercase) blog: "if islam kills non-believers as a matter of religious doctrine, then why should muslims expect to be free of retribution in the name of those islam kills?"
These are the people who defined and framed the debate over the Lower Manhattan Islamic center. Now the controversy has gone viral, attracting opposition to the project from ambitious mainstream politicians, including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, both of whom are toying with presidential runs, and Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor of New York. Palin has ratcheted up the rhetoric, referring to Park51 as the "9/11 mosque."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has firmly supported the project - which a majority of Manhattan residents support - arguing passionately for First Amendment principles. President Obama weighed in for the same principles - before quickly weighing out amid withering criticism, saying his defense of the right to build the center was not an endorsement of its propriety.
We should bear in mind that it's election season, and some politicians have clearly calculated that opposing the center - and similar projects around the country - will translate into political and financial support. But why should that be? And why should the construction of a house of worship in America - a country founded partly for the sake of religious refuge - become a full-blown national controversy?
Here we come to the key fallacy driving these fights - the "big lie," to use Hitler's term for a falsehood so preposterous that it goes unchallenged. In this instance, the lie is that Muslims attacked America in the name of Islam.
The U.S. government bears much of the responsibility for propagating this myth in the wake of 9/11. It allowed - indeed, encouraged - the view that a political attack carried out by a tiny group of radical terrorists was, in fact, an attack on America on behalf of all Muslims in the name of Islam. This was the argument disseminated by al-Qaeda itself. Hence, the federal government was in the curious position of promoting al-Qaeda's propaganda.
That al-Qaeda is a gang of disgruntled thugs - many of whom were our disgruntled thugs during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - is deemed irrelevant in this view. They were our "freedom fighters" when Ronald Reagan was president; now they "hate our freedoms," as George W. Bush put it.
Of course, President Bush spoke in mosques, invited imams to the White House, and intoned that "Islam is peace." At the same time, though, his administration was interrogating tens of thousands of Muslims and jailing thousands of them, investigating Muslim students, using Byzantine immigration laws against Muslims and deporting tens of thousands of them, employing the Energy Department to monitor mosque radiation levels, using the Census Bureau to identify Muslim neighborhoods, and sending the FBI out to count American mosques.
This intense investigative focus on Muslims during the last several years, coupled with a constant labeling of terrorist plots as Muslim, created a fertile field for xenophobia.
Now Bryan Fischer, a leader of the fundamentalist American Family Association, has gone so far as to state flatly that Muslim Americans are by definition treasonous. "Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for ground zero," Fischer wrote recently on his blog. "This is for one simple reason: each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government."
Fischer's solution? Repatriate Muslims to their home countries.
This completely ignores the fact that close to a majority of the five million to eight million Muslims in this country were born here, and roughly a third are African American. Facts do matter.
Even the idea that families touched by death on 9/11 are somehow united in opposition to the Park51 project is completely erroneous, as Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall demonstrated this week.
"It's a sin what [fearmongers] are doing, making this about politics at the families' expense," Robert McIlvaine, who lost his son when the planes hit the World Trade Center, told John-Hall. "It's producing hate, and it's the last thing this country needs right now."
How to stanch all that hate will soon be the key question.
Stephan Salisbury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.