Fanning flames of hate

The decision by a Florida pastor to call off plans to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks averts an incident that would surely have harmed the United States in the view of Muslims worldwide — and would likely have put American troops at greater risk in Afghanistan. But the Rev. Terry Jones' acquiescence to pressure from everywhere from the White House to the Vatican does not erase the growing stain of Islamophobia in this country. The reason Mr. Jones' plan generated so much attention was not because it was so far outside of the mainstream but because, as the ninth anniversary of the attacks approaches, it was dangerously close to it.

One of the most important parts of former President George W. Bush's leadership after 9/11 was his insistence that our enemy was Al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies, not the religion of Islam or the 1 billion Muslims worldwide who revere the Quran as holy scripture. President Obama, who early on made outreach to the world's Muslim population a diplomatic priority, has continued to stress that crucial distinction. But that has done nothing to quell the recent upsurge in anti-Muslim feeling triggered by plans to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque in Lower Manhattan near the site of the 9/11 attacks.

Given the reaction in the Muslim world in 2005 to a Danish political cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammad as a terrorist, there is little doubt that the plans of the spectacularly ill-named Dove World Outreach Center could have undone the efforts of two American presidents to improve ties with the Muslim world, and in the process given our adversaries a powerful propaganda weapon to wield against us and put our troops at even greater risk.

But what made the danger so much greater was that it would be difficult for American leaders to disavow Mr. Jones as some isolated crackpot. His provocation coincided with protests over the construction of mosques in several other communities, and overblown rhetoric by mainstream opponents of the proposed Islamic cultural center in New York. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich compared the plan to erecting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum — as if the Muslim religion in general conspired to attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the same way that Hitler pursued the extermination of Jews. Sarah Palin, too, has fanned the notion that the peaceful practice of a major religion would desecrate the hallowed ground of the World Trade Center site.

President Obama injected himself into the controversy in Florida in an interview Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America," imploring Mr. Jones to call off his plans for the sake of the troops, if not brotherhood and goodwill toward men. How much influence that had we may never know. But President Obama, because of the widespread false belief that he is a Muslim, is limited in his ability to quell the currents of anti-Islamic sentiment in this country. Many of those who are now equating Islam with terrorism are probably the same ones who believe the lies about Mr. Obama's religion.

Former President Bush has generally shied away from the spotlight since leaving office, but on this anniversary of 9/11, he could play a crucial role in bringing the country together, as he did nine years ago. A week after the attacks, Mr. Bush visited the Washington Islam Center mosque and quoted from the Quran: "In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule." A few days later, Mr. Bush met with American Muslim leaders, thanked them for their gift of copy of the Quran and affirmed that "the teachings of Islam are the teachings of peace and good." We need to hear from President Bush again. He, perhaps uniquely among American leaders, can return us to the path of rejecting violent hatred but embracing all peaceful faiths.

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