Conservatism has been unfairly maligned as racist, Gerard Alexander writes in op-ed in today’s Washington Post. “From an immigration law in Arizona to a planned mosque near Ground Zero to Glenn Beck emoting at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he writes,
the controversies roiling American politics in recent weeks and months have featured an ugly undertone, suggesting meanness, prejudice and, in the eyes of some, outright racism. And it is conservatives—whether Republican politicians, Fox News commentators or members of the “tea party” movement—who are invariably painted with that brush.
I agree with Alexander’s broad point: American conservatism is not racist, either in theory or in practice, and most of the accusations hurled against conservatives are ill-founded. His analysis of debate about the mosque near Ground Zero, though, is too hasty. “The planned Islamic center near Ground Zero raises alarms, in part, because the insensitivity of its architects to 9/11’s emotional legacy suggests their deeper distance from American sensibilities.” Conservatives’ opposition to the center, he argues, rests on the principle that “[j]ust because someone has a legal right to do something . . . does not mean it is a wise, desirable[,] or respectful thing to do.” But it’s only unwise, undesirable, or disrespectful to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero if you take the position that the mosque’s supporters and future patrons are and will be Muslims, just like the 9⁄11 hijackers.
But they are 2 different sets of Muslims. The mosque’s supporters are part of the American cultural pastiche, and should be presumed—unless shown otherwise—to accept America’s world standing and to be normal, loyal Americans who are not committed to the violent overthrow of the United States. (Whether they agree with current American policies is irrelevant; no one—not even the president—agrees with all current American policies. We don’t hand out building permits on the basis of policy preferences.) The 9⁄11 hijackers, as they demonstrated to horrific effect, were committed to the violent overthrow of the United States.
Sure, both groups read from the same Qur’an, and so some New Yorkers might be reminded of the hijackers when they see the mosque near Ground Zero. I do not begrudge the person who involuntarily makes that connection, but the connection is unfortunate—something to be overcome, not accommodated. It would be unwise to make an exception to America’s pluralist ideals until the 9⁄11 generation dies off in 60 or 70 years. Allowing the mosque to be built will allow more non-Muslim Americans to meet and know their Muslim fellow citizens, and hopefully to develop new connections so that the thought of Islam does not immediately bring to mind 9⁄11.