Between a fundamentalist pastor’s on-again, off-again plans to barbecue the Quran and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s baffling interview on Larry King Live, it’s been an epic and instructive week in a new era of political correctness. To sum it up: Florida Pastor Terry Jones had planned to set afire scores of Qurans in a protest against Islam on the anniversary of September 11th, raising objections from nearly everyone across the political spectrum who feared that it would incite violence against Americans in the Islamic world, undercut current efforts at outreach and tarnish the principles of religious tolerance for which this country stands. He has now seemingly agreed to cancel “Burn a Quran Day” on the condition that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf find a different location for his planned Islamic outreach center. In a completely unrelated development, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf appeared on Larry King Live earlier in the week and admitted that, had he known the public response to his plans to build an Islamic center a few blocks away from Ground Zero would be so controversial he might have sought a different location. He emphasized, however, that he simply cannot cancel the plans at this stage out of concern that it would fuel radical Islamic hatred against America and put the country in danger.

It’s certainly understandable that most Americans are either scratching their heads or shrugging their shoulders in reaction not only to the sequence of events themselves, but to the competing narratives coming from politicians, the media and private interest groups, each one seemingly divining a different moral to the complicated story, for which the common thread seems to be the antagonizing of Islam. The president and General Patraeus argued that the Quran burning would incite violence against Americans and bolster al Qaeda recruiting efforts. Sarah Palin opined that Terry Jones’ plans, while perfectly legal, were in bad taste and un-American, “much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.” While the media has tried to be above the fray, a consensus does seem to have developed among the various news outlets: due to the actions of one small town, Southern fundamentalist pastor and the Islamophobic Americans who disapprove of the Ground Zero mosque, all of the hard work by presidents Bush and Obama to assure the Muslim world that the War on Terror is not a war on Islam may come to naught.

In this blogger’s opinion, the waters have become far too muddied. I opposed Pastor Jones’ plan to burn the Quran, not out of fear of a Muslim backlash, but because as a Christian and a freedom-loving American I find the image of my fellow citizens setting books on fire out of religious hatred embarrassing and difficult to stomach. Some have argued that his demonstration is aimed only at radical Islam and is therefore no different than South Park’s satirical and provocative depictions of Mohammed or the Danish cartoons. Forgive my skepticism, but a man who writes a book entitled “Islam is of the Devil,” if he takes issue only with radical Islam, either has terrible business sense or is being disingenuous. And even if Burn a Quran Day were aimed only at Islamic extremism, I find it hard to believe he could not have found a more creative and less ill-conceived means of getting his message across. While I agree he has every right to go through with this distasteful display should he so decide, I would hope that he and his congregation would find another, more enlightened way of demonstrating.

As for the Ground Zero mosque, I haven’t come down either way. I’ve been of the opinion that, while September 11th holds significance for every American, the decision should be left up to the state and city of New York and its residents. I have no issue with a mosque so close to Ground Zero, but I would have an issue with a mosque run and bankrolled by fundamentalists sympathetic to those that launched the attacks against us at such a sensitive site. Indeed, I’ve become more and more suspicious of Imam Abdul Rauf’s real intentions the longer the circus surrounding his outreach center plans went on. His
comments that America is an “accessory” to September 11th and his outrageous claims that America has the blood of many more innocent Muslims on its hands that al Qaeda are troubling for a man who has repeatedly asserted that he wishes to honor the memory of the victims of the September 11th attacks. Moreover I could not understand why a rational man who insisted his mission was sensitivity and outreach to the non-Muslim American community would prolong such a clearly painful debate in the very community to which he wished to minister. But what really turned me off about the Imam were his pretensions that he did not anticipate such an explosive response to his outreach center plans and, even more absurd, that if he were to cancel them now it would only encourage further Islamic radicalization in the Middle East and invite violence against the US. Which brings me to my main argument and what I believe to be the real lesson drawn from all this nonsense.

A lot has been said over the last nine years about how we have waged and should wage the War on Terror. Neo-conservatives have argued that Americans must give up some civil liberties for the sake of security while we take the fight to the enemy. Liberals have by and large criticized this as allowing the enemy to alter our way of life and needlessly erode our essential freedoms. Ironically, liberals now find themselves in the position of arguing the same things as neo-conservatives but with a different tone. Rather than defending us from radical Islam’s violent response to our fight against them, liberals are concerned about defending us from radical Islam’s violent response to our way of life and essential freedoms! In many ways this is far more insidious than the simpler line taken by neo-conservatives. Attempting to silence the (distasteful) exercise of one’s free speech rights out of fear of what violent Islamic extremists might do is corrosive to liberty. Just as demanding that exercising one's freedom of religion in a deliberately provacative manner should be universally approved of on the premise that it will invite violence from Islamic extremists if it is not is corrosive to liberty.

What is less often said is this: perhaps Americans shouldn’t be held responsible for the response of radical Islamic extremists, but rather radical Islamic extremists should be held responsible for their own response. Taking it a step further, those in the mainstream Muslim community who frequently argue that they condemn such violent responses might also look at the role they have to play in combating the extremist elements in their communities, just as Christians have rightly been criticized for the acts of their fundamentalist adherents, both past and present, not only in this country but across the world. If a group of people are not held to account for not only preaching but acting on their belief that anyone who disagrees with or offends their faith should be silenced or, worse yet, be killed, then this problem will never go away but merely grow larger. Our response as free citizens cannot be to change our way of life to appease those blackmailing us with violence, and any such argument (particularly when made by liberals) is entirely inappropriate. If we learn one lesson from these insane events, it’s that we ought to frame our opposition to or support of particular American experiences in American terms rather than in terms of our fears, rational or otherwise, of those who seek the ruin of freedom as we know it.

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