Jacob Sullum

I do not often agree with President Barack Obama or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But they have taken the right position in the controversy over plans for a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, defending religious freedom and property rights against government meddling driven by irrational prejudice.

In contrast, whatever residual respect I had for Newt Gingrich because of his libertarian impulses as a Republican opposition leader and speaker of the House has been wiped out by his shameful performance as a jingoistic rabble-rouser who insists that "we should not tolerate" what the Constitution requires us to tolerate. By conflating the avowedly moderate, pluralistic and ecumenical backers of Park 51 with the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center, he encourages the same sort of collectivist thinking that inspired those mass murderers.

Gingrich distinguishes between "well-meaning Muslims," who agree with him that the project should not be built so close to ground zero, and "radical Islamists," who are fundamentally hostile to the West. But he says the radicals include both "violent jihadis," who openly support terrorism, and "stealth jihadis," who advocate peaceful coexistence while using "political, cultural, societal, religious (and) intellectual tools" to achieve the same goal of Islamic domination.

Although Gingrich implies that the imam behind Park 51 -- Feisal Abdul Rauf -- is a stealth jihadi, there is not much evidence to support that view. Gingrich cites the project's original name, Cordoba House, as proof of Rauf's aggressive intentions, calling Cordoba "a symbol of Islamic conquest." Yet Rauf, rather more plausibly, says the name was intended to evoke the golden age of Spain under the relatively tolerant Cordoba caliphate, a period when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in what, by the standards of the Middle Ages, qualified as harmony.

One of Rauf's most prominent critics, Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, notes some radical-sounding associates, but even he concedes that Rauf has reached out to Muslims with a wide variety of viewpoints. Though Rauf might be faking it, he has a long record of condemning violence and engaging in interreligious dialogue -- a record persuasive enough that the FBI looked to him for help in fighting terrorism.

To Gingrich, however, none of this really matters. In his view, anyone who supports Park 51 is a stealth jihadi by definition.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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