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.
Gingrich does not object to the project because the wrong sort of Muslims are building it. He objects to any Muslim house of worship on that site. He declares that "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." What an absurd non sequitur. Since when is a foreign state's intolerance an excuse for trampling Americans' constitutional rights?
Sarah Palin, the first national figure to make an issue of Park 51, says, "We all know that they have the right to do it." But Gingrich knows no such thing.
"The Ground Zero mosque is all about conquest," he says, "and thus an assertion of Islamist triumphalism which we should not tolerate." In response to those who note that interfering with the project because of its Muslim character would violate the First Amendment, he says, "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington."
Put aside the fact that if Nazis owned a lot next to the Holocaust Museum, they would have a right to put up a sign, subject to content-neutral regulations. Gingrich's comparison between Muslims and Nazis reflects his more general equating of Muslims with terrorists, which is at the heart of his objections to Park 51.
Jews, Christians or Hindus are free to build whatever they want at 51 Park Place, but not Muslims. Why? Because the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Muslims. Once you strip away the Orwellian rhetoric equating peaceful religious activity with violence, Gingrich's position really is as simple and appalling as that.