As the mid-term electoral season enters its final months, the growing controversy over the construction of Park51, the now well-known Muslim community center proposed to be built near the former site of the World Trade Center, has rocketed from an issue of local concern to one of apparently national import. Comments from Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich helped spark the national debate about a month ago, and recently President Obama has spoken on the issue, labeling the organizers’ right to build the center a matter of religious freedom, though later qualifying that support for the right to build (and in turn worship) does not necessarily indicate the wisdom of the proposed center’s location, explaining, “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”

In a New York Times Room for Debate feature, a range of figures, from Democratic strategist Donna Brazile to Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, considered how President Obama can best navigate the political dangers of the mosque debate.  David Gibson, religion reporter and columnist for, noted the difficulties Obama may face by invoking the principle of religious freedom:

Religious leaders and human rights experts across the spectrum have long argued that in promoting international religious freedom, the United States must first lead by example. Republicans in particular have been preaching this gospel for decades, after Democrats largely ceded the territory in the 1980s.

That many Republican leaders may now be forgetting that history is a shame, and for religious believers — especially Christians in Islamic countries — it’s bad news indeed. President Obama can remind Republicans and the American people of what is at stake, and advance a diplomacy that uses religious freedom as a central component and an effective tool.

But as is often the case, Mr. Obama’s problem is in part his own making. His administration did not name an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom until this June, despite the urging of religious freedom advocates that he act quicker. And then he picked Suzan Johnson Cook, a Baptist pastor from the Bronx with no political experience to speak of; she is still awaiting confirmation in the Senate.

If President Obama had an ambassador for religious freedom in place, maybe even a high-profile Republican (there are many potential candidates), this entire episode could have played out differently. Now the president will have to make the case himself. And he should.

Adding a further layer of complication, Dr. Richard D. Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and commisioner at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, has also spoken out against the project:

For nine years now we’ve had a lot of calls for American people who are not Muslms to be sensitive to concerns of American Muslims and not in any way make them feel like they’re not wanted. I think that America has done a pretty good job of responding to that [and] I think now is the time for Muslim Americans to be sensitive to the concerns of their fellow Americans.

Opposition to or support for the center has generally fallen along party lines, though the President, if he continues to support the builders’ rights, cannot count on the support of all of his fellow Democrats. Senator Harry Reid, facing a challenging re-election, and Howard Dean, decidedly not under the same pressures, have spoken out against the location of the proposed center. On the other hand, the Republican Party has also witnessed several of its members break rank:

“As it relates to religious buildings in the vicinity of ground zero, it’s either all or nothing — churches, synagogues and mosques should be treated the same,” Chris Gibson, a Republican running against a House incumbent in upstate New York, said on his Facebook page.

In New Jersey, GOP Gov. Chris Christie warned Tuesday against politicizing the mosque dispute and tarnishing “all of Islam” with fears of terrorism.

“What offends me the most about all this is that it’s being used as a political football by both parties,” Christie said.

With a fair degree of simplification and a certain amount of generosity (as many opponents of the cultural center are driven by misinformed Islamophobia), the debate over the location of the center could, in a sense, be distilled to the disagreement between a position inspired by the tenet of religious freedom and a position based on the principles of wisdom or sensitivity. In this vein, the editors of On Faith asked a panel of thinkers whether one could believe in religious freedom, yet find the location of the center inappropriate.

Welton Gaddy, Pastor of Monroe, LA’s  Northminster (Baptist) Church, found the debate to be “an issue of religious freedom – period,” while Nathan Diamant, of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, wrote that, “There is a difference between rights, which must be protected under the law, and courtesies, the mutual respect and common decency that neighbors owe to one another. Yes, those behind the building of the mosque may have a legal right to do so, but should exercise self-restraint and not do so at this time.” Claiming, however, that the construction of the community center is insensitive to the memory of 9/11 victims or to the pain of the victims’ families necessarily implicates the belief that all Muslims, including the developers of the center, are somehow linked—somehow responsible—for the crimes of al-Qaeda. Muqtedar Khan, Professor of Political Science at the University of Delaware noted eloquently that:

The position that a majority of Americans are taking – we respect their constitutional right to build a mosque, but they should respect our sensibilities not to have anything Muslim at our sacred places – is fascinating. It allows prejudice to prevail while simultaneously alleviating guilt. It is this ethical fiction – this is not about rights but about what is right — that is allowing so many to oppose the project and enabling mainstream politicians to traffic in intolerance.

Imam Rauf, the principle force behind the center, is a very good example of a moderate Muslim. A leader in interfaith relations and a teacher of tolerance and love, he belongs to the Sufi traditions of Islam for whom the love of God is paramount. But now his project to build bridges with America has inadvertently become a lightning rod for hatred. If he succeeds in building his center, it will be a triumph for America and its values. But American Muslims will have to pay a big price for it.

The tidal wave of Islamophobia that has been unleashed will not disappear easily or quickly. The anger could manifest in myriad forms of discriminatory behavior towards Muslims. We must not forget that the fundamental reason behind the anger towards the mosque is an inability or an unwillingness to distinguish between ordinary American Muslims and Al Qaeda.

It is frightening that so many Americans are blinded by prejudice and mistaking a bridge for a beachhead. Prejudice is also fungible. Even if it is nurtured only against Muslims, it will turn against every one else eventually.

Meanwhile, at Vanity Fair, Amitava Kumar argues that individuals on both sides of the debate have framed their arguments in a way that “erases individuals”:

Let me begin with a question: Who is a Muslim?Virtually everyone who has commented on the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy claims to know the answer to the above question. As Leon Wieseltier once put it, “On September 10, 2001, nobody in America seemed to know anything about Islam. On September 12, 2001, everybody seemed to know everything about Islam.”

The National Republican Trust PAC recently produced a television ad—“Kill the Ground Zero Mosque”—to advocate opposition to the planned mosque. The ad repeatedly presents Muslims as armed, masked men intent on destruction. The ad is so virulent that it was rejected by both NBC and CBS.

On the other side, there is pious commentary by those who invoke the U.S. Constitution as the foundation on which a cultural center would be built. In this legalistic narrative, Muslims are the non-descript citizens who all look the same in the impartial eye of the law and deserve the freedom of religion.

Are both sides guilty of denying ordinary Muslims their humanity?

See also: in the New York Observer, Dana Rubinstein profiles Sharif El-Gamal, developer of Park51l; Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan offers to mediate between opponents and backers of the community center; and Maggie Haberman and Ben Smith question the financial feasibility of the construction of the center.