by Joshua M. Z. Stanton

When John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, fear-mongers raised the specter of his dual loyalty. Would he really serve American interests or merely be a pawn for the Vatican? After all, he was a Catholic. Church doctrine, it was whispered, could co-opt the person designated to uphold America’s laws and Constitution.

Similar fears have been raised about Muslim-Americans, and ironically, often in conjunction with our current Christian president. Generalizations based on religion are disturbing because they reduce rich, diverse, and complicated belief structures to monolithic and inaccurate convictions. Yet what is most galling is the fact that accusations of dual loyalty, no less to a religion other than the president’s own, have not dissipated during the course of Obama’s first term in office. If anything, they have grown more raucous and extreme.

So what exactly is the unknown that fear-mongers harp on? Among other things, it is the fear that a growing American religious community may suddenly undermine the country’s Constitutional values. Sharia, so-called Islamic law, is the new specter that fills the void left by the dissipated fear of Vatican doctrine and fear of Communism that crumbled alongside the Soviet Union. Forget the millions of Muslims in the United States who drink coffee, go to work, raise children, celebrate the Fourth of July, and pay their taxes on time. Sharia equals terrorism. “Need proof,” the fear-mongers ask? Just look at the fact that the terrorists who attacked us on September 11 observed Sharia. “Do you want to support terrorism?”

This argument not only appallingly conflates all Muslims with Muslims who observe Sharia, but Muslims who observe Sharia with terrorists. The notion that 1.4 billion people could ever be the same might seem laughable, were the decision to lump all Muslims together – and then equate them with the worst handful – not made so frequently. This false logic is at the root of much fear.

Trying to provide a parallel to the pseudo-logic of Islamophobia is a challenge. Here is but a vain attempt from American history: fear of the Japanese during World War II. Many differences are immediately apparent. The United States was actually at war with Japan (it is not at war with Islam), Japan is a nation rather than a highly disparate group of religious practitioners, and the war was being fought in good part through conventional tactics. Even so, the widespread fear of a fifth column had horrendous consequences for freedom in America. The American government, under an Executive Order from the Roosevelt Administration, rounded up and interned more than 120,000 American citizens in guarded camps, even though few if any had even considered undermining American war efforts. Their lives were tossed into disarray, undermining the American dream they immigrated for and the Constitutional values for which their brothers in arms were fighting overseas.

As a country that has long prided itself on representing a superior national enterprise, we must learn from our past. We have not yet taken unconscionable measures against our Muslim citizens and must avoid doing so at all costs. As our history indicates, our Constitutional values may well be at stake when we fear and single out an American community.

Currently, we see Islamophobes and fear-mongers inching us toward unthinkable violations of religious freedom. In America, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peace-loving and loyal citizens. Their mosques and community centers reflect this outlook. Yet when civic leaders in New York recently went public with their hope to transform the former Burlington Coat Factory building into a Muslim community center, they were tarred and feathered for “radicalism.” Their proposed Park51 center was mislabeled the “Ground Zero Mosque” and the center’s visionaries, Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, were labeled terrorist sympathizers. Both condemn terrorism and have worked tirelessly for decades to prevent it through interfaith collaboration and dialogue. Rauf even partnered with the George W. Bush administration to work for Middle East peace. Moreover, the movie theaters, swimming pools, dining areas and conference centers they propose are hardly radical. Only through conflation, distortion, and fear could we become so afraid of a mere recreation center.

Some say that the notion of a “mosque” near the hallowed site of Ground Zero is insensitive. That position might seem consistent but for three things: the proposed Muslim community center is out of sight from Ground Zero, other houses of worship have not been barred from the area, and little (negative) attention has been paid to the strip clubs in the neighborhood. When strip clubs are prioritized over a place for people to talk, socialize, and pray, it seems clear that fear is at play. Better a known vice, the fear-mongers imply, than a less understood religion.

Cost of this fear is tremendous. Protests against Park51 have metastasized into a national movement against the establishment of mosques. Fighting the construction of mosques has lead to even more outrageous threats – and plans by one extremist church in Florida to burn copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Even some local and national politicians have joined in the chorus of fright. Long-term solutions to terrorism are far more complicated than short-term political gain; it is easier to unite constituents against a phantasm than for a purpose. Fear of the unknown has spiraled out of control, targeting Sharia, places of worship, and now even Scripture. The fear is feeding on itself, and starting to consume the essence of religion in America: freedom. The Founding Fathers knew that when one house of worship is endangered, none of them are safe; when a Torah is burned, a Bible may be next; when one kind of religious law is defamed, theologies of all kinds may become subjected to hate.

It would seem that in the name of preserving American values – supposedly against terrorism – we have come to actually compromise those same values. Freedom cannot be preserved through its own debasement. Singling out Muslim Americans, much as with prejudice against Jewish Americans and Catholic Americans before them, will prove to be wrong. The question is how much damage will be done before the fear subsides.

Impeding the construction of Park51 actually strengthens radicals. Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf have more than proven their love of America and desire for peace. If anything, the Park51 community center they envision will revitalize the neighborhood still recovering from the 9/11 attacks. It will be a sign from moderate Muslims that they stand with all Americans in the process of rebuilding – and mourning – the devastation.

In fact, the only true beneficiaries of Islamophobia are the terrorist organizations that want to show that America is not actually free, that Muslims will never be welcome here. Terrorism is both a cause and a product of fear; Islamophobes amplify the voices of extremists and create polarities that need never exist.

Rather than unwittingly aiding extremists, Americans should return to their core values, namely the profound belief in religious freedom. It is what the Pilgrims came to the New World for and what the Founders fought for during the Revolutionary War. As the great patriot Thomas Paine proclaimed, “I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.” That is a credo to which all Americans of faith can ascribe, so long as they do not succumb to fear.

Joshua Stanton, is co-Director of Religious Freedom USA and a Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™.  A Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College, he is the recipient of numerous leadership awards.  He is also a blogger for the Huffington Post and serves on the Board of Directors of World Faith, as well as the Education as Transformation project.