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 Temecula, Islamic congregations seeking to build 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 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 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."
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. Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, who received the prize in 2005, has said he would return it in protest of ADL's stance on the mosque. I received 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 build 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.
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 Sept. 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.
Rutten is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.