The politicians, pundits, and citizens that are in an uproar over the Cordoba Initiative's new Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan have one thing right: the mosque on one of the floors isn't just a mosque, it's a symbol.
Sarah Palin and her supporters would have us believe that the project, which was approved by local authorities, is an affront to all Americans because the World Trade Center was attacked by Muslims. In their interpretation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the "Global War on Terror" are Samuel Huntington-style clashes of civilizations rather than conflicts between states (in Iraq), against outlaw regimes and insurgents (Afghanistan), or ideologically motivated criminals (GWOT). Their reading of the situation is based on the mistaken belief that all Muslims accept the Salafist view that there is one narrow interpretation of Islam as opposed to the broader view accepting various cultural influences found through most of history and the modern world.
Because they accept this ridiculous world view in which all Muslims are the enemy, Palin and associates claim that the Cordoba House is a symbol of Muslim attacks on the United States, and should be blocked. That Muslims serve with honor in the United States military and are embedded in all part of American society makes no difference. All that matters to them is that this symbol of the cultural enemy be kept far, far away from the site of the World Trade Center.
However, since the Cordoba House project was approved by the borough of Manhattan and enjoys the support of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it is a symbol of something else - a symbol of the American Promise. The America that I learned about in school back in the 1970s was that of the Melting Pot, where people from everywhere came and once here were magically Americans regardless of color or creed. Religious freedom was part of the Melting Pot mythology.
The first Europeans to settle North America arrived in Massachusetts seeking freedom from religious persecution in England. The Puritans had a radically different vision of religious freedom than we do since they merely wanted a place where they could create John Winthrop's vision of the City on the Hill, and they excluded those who didn't toe the line like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. They were followed by other religious dissidents, seekers of fortune, and even criminals, but the idea of religious freedom didn't die with the Puritans.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Tom Paine all advocated for religious liberty and toleration, with Jefferson believing that his greatest accomplishment was Virginia's statute ensuring religious freedom. These men, who arguably gave birth to our national philosophy, believed that religious belief was a private matter, not one for public debate. Although we've had problems implementing this idea in practice over time, we fundamentally have accepted the idea that people of all faiths could worship in their own way as long as it didn't hurt anyone.
Despite this long tradition, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and others, have decided that because the 19 men that attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, were Muslims, all Muslims are the enemy. Not only does this fly in the face of our ideals, but it reinforces Ossama bin Laden's claim that we are engaging in an anti-Muslim Crusade at the side of Israel. Not only does this fuel the flame of conflict, but makes our soldiers' efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan more difficult to accomplish because it declares that all Muslims are the enemy.
Rather than merely being a place of worship, the mosque at Cordoba House is thus a symbol of religious freedom and our own domestic battles with ourselves - a symbol of the American challenge of trying to live up to our own ideals in a complicated and frightening world.