It often seems these days as if the United States is reliving many of its most wrenching 19th century controversies.
Take, for example, the increasing antipathy to Islam and to American Muslims. Those sentiments mirror the nativist contagion that surged like a recurrent fever through the United States for most of the 1800s. From lower Manhattan to Wisconsin to Tennessee to Temecula, Islamic congregations seeking to build new mosques have encountered hostile opposition. A growing number of organizations — some of them overlapping with the "tea party" movement — promote animosity to Islam as a creed. One of their most popular fantasies is that new mosques are part of a plot to supplant the Constitution with Sharia, or Muslim religious law.
At the moment, the epicenter of this revived malignancy is a few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center, where plans to build a mosque and Islamic studies center have ignited a firestorm of opposition. Like all irrational impulses, nativist agitation lends itself to political appropriation. Consider, for instance, the dubious campaign that has developed around the Anti-Defamation League's ill-advised intervention in the controversy. Early on in the planning, the Jewish civil rights organization issued a statement that concluded: "Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right."
ADL's national director, Abe Foxman, later compared the situation to what occurred at Auschwitz in 1993, when the late Pope John Paul II intervened to remove a convent of Carmelite nuns in proximity to the death camp where millions of Jews died in the Holocaust, because some survivors felt affronted. However, when New York officials ruled the mosque could proceed, ADL dropped the issue.
Each year, ADL gives an award, the Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize, to a journalist or organization that has advanced the ideals embodied in that section of the Constitution. Last week, Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek International's editor and host of a first-rate CNN weekend show, who received the prize in 2005, said he would return it in protest of ADL's stance on the mosque. Since then, a number of prominent bloggers have praised his act of conscience and published lists of the award's recipients, suggesting that they ought to either follow his example or explain why not. I was honored to receive the Humphrey prize two years ago and will not return it, though I certainly respect Zakaria's arguments.
The ADL was wrong on this issue, but as its statement indicated, it never questioned the right of the Islamic congregation to construct a place of worship. ADL weighed that right against the feelings of some grieving survivors and decided to come down on their side, even if it was irrational. That was a mistake, but it was an error committed out of an excess of compassion and not as an expression of animosity. The situation is not analogous to the Auschwitz example because the Jews murdered there were killed simply for being Jews. Those who died in the World Trade Center — Jews, Christians and Muslims alike — died for being Americans. It's simply unacceptable to argue that because their murderers were Muslims of a sort, American Muslims ought now be urged to forgo exercise of their Constitutional rights.
That said, ADL's misguided excess of feeling in a case in which clear thinking was requisite is not part of a pattern, which is why it stands out so clearly as a mistake. In fact, since 9/11 the organization has spoken out frequently and clearly against discrimination toward Muslims.
As Amanda Susskind, who directs ADL's Pacific Southwest Region, told me this week, "ADL is not in the business of promoting an anti-Muslim agenda. Our original statement focused on the issues of location and sensitivity of the Islamic Community Center. The debate on those issues was hijacked by bigots, Islamophobes and those who wanted to promote their own political agendas."
In an era of revived nativism like this one, ADL, even if it occasionally errs, is an organization I regard as indispensable.