Commentary: Ellmer's 'victory mosque' ad fans flames of intolerance

That maniacal cackling sound in the distant background is the gleeful reaction of Muslim extremists to the sort of thing going on in North Carolina's 2nd Congressional District election this fall.

The whack-job terrorists are probably thrilled about it — because it suggests they're winning their campaign to make America look like a nation of hypocrites on the issue of freedom.

A head-turning ad in that race reflects a growing national opposition to an American imam's proposal to build a community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site that would include a room devoted to prayer. It's emblematic of a widespread public reaction that indicates the populace no longer fully embraces the Constitution's First Amendment protection for religious freedom.

Renee Ellmers, the Republican nominee challenging longtime Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge in the Nov. 2 election, has begun running an ad on cable TV channels in a rural Eastern N.C. district attacking the center's location.

The ad has gone viral — referred to repeatedly on broadcast talk shows and showing up on CNN, Fox News and YouTube.

The ad isn't true. But it is doing its job, earning Ellmers considerable publicity and putting her opponent, who hadn't previously taken a public stand, on the defensive.

As McClatchy Newspapers' Washington correspondent Barbara Barrett reports, Ellmers' ad calls a planned community center a few blocks from the World Trade Center in New York a "victory mosque" for Muslims like those constructed after Muslims conquered Jerusalem, Cordoba and Constantinople in the 7th, 8th and 17th centuries. An announcer says, "And now they want to build a mosque by ground zero."

Then Ellmers appears in the ad to say, "The terrorists haven't won, and we should tell them in plain English, 'No, there will never be a mosque at ground zero.'"

Ellmers is right about that much. There won't be a mosque at the World Trade Center. But no one has proposed building a mosque "at ground zero" or even "by ground zero." The proposed community center is a two-minute walk up West Broadway for two blocks, then down Park Place.

And as the News & Observer reported the other day, the mosques Ellmers' ad cited were not "victory mosques." Notions that Muslims built mosques to celebrate those victories "are sheer flights of fancy with no historical testimony to support it," Duke University associate professor of Islamic studies Ebrahim Moosa said.

The Dome of the Rock was built 50 years after Muslims captured Jerusalem as a shrine where pilgrims could visit the site where, they believe, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to accept a message from God, the newspaper reported. The building cited in Cordoba was constructed 73 years after Muslims toppled that city. The building is now a cathedral. The Blue Mosque in Istanbul was built more than 150 years after Constantinople fell.

In New York, Feisal Abdul Rauf, a graduate of Columbia University and a longtime New York Giants fan, proposes to build a community center that would include a restaurant, swimming pool, day care center, gymnasium, classrooms, a memorial to the victims of 9-11 and an Islamic prayer room. Rauf, imam of a New York mosque, is vice chairman of the Interfaith Center of New York who has, the New Yorker magazine reports, conducted sensitivity training for FBI agents and police. "He denounces terrorism in general and the 9-11 attacks in particular, often and at length," the magazine said.

The proposed community center in New York may be a political issue in the 2nd District, but it is not up to the U.S. Congress. It's up to New York City, which has jurisdiction over the proposed location two city blocks north of the World Trade Center site. Google Maps shows the WTC property on Vesey St. Then there's the N.Y. State Department of Health building, then Barclay Street, then a building that includes law offices, then Park Place. It is there on Park Place, between an Amish Market and the Dakota Roadhouse, in an area that includes pizza parlors, porn shops and nearby churches, that Rauf proposes the center.

I think Rauf fails to appreciate the strong sentiment running against his plan even two blocks away. His center probably would have far less opposition if it had more space between it and the raw symbolism of a place where thousands of Americans - including Muslims who worked there - were killed by terrorists nine years ago.

And I think many Americans hold honest reservations about the place being so near the World Trade Center site, even as they recognize it isn't our decision to make.

But in actively spreading lies about the center and where it would be built, Ellmers and those who also spread misinformation play into the hands of religious prejudice. They reinforce the impression that terrorists are succeeding in changing American society from one of religious tolerance to outright hostility to all Muslims — including American Muslims who denounce violence and terrorism.

The toll of 9-11 continues to rise.


Jack Betts is a Charlotte Observer associate editor. E-mail him at jbetts@charlotteobserver.com.

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