We would do well to remember why America as a nation exists at all: The early colonists from Europe fled the tyranny of monarchs who could tell them whom, how, whether, when, and where they could worship.

We shouldn’t have to be reminded that religious freedom means everyone gets to worship as their conscience guides them. Unfortunately, hate, fear, and revenge bend some minds toward destructive behavior. They need to be reminded what our country is all about.

The proposal to build a Manhattan mosque in the vicinity of the 9/11 Ground Zero has moved some U.S. leaders–Newt Gingrich, Charles Krauthammer, and Sarah Palin among them–to decry the plan and to compare Islam to Nazism. Journalist Mike Barnicle called Gingrich a “political pyromaniac,” because, in fanning the flames of anti-Islamic fear, Gingrich–and others opposing construction of the mosque–ignite hate and burn a pillar of our constitution. Shame on them.

President Barack Obama has wisely indicated that 9/11 didn’t repeal freedom of religion. During a traditional Ramadan meal served at the White House in honor of American Muslims, he asserted that building that mosque on private property was a right that should be upheld. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the same thing weeks earlier than Obama on this one. Good for him.

Here’s another thing we ought to remember. After Christianity, Islam is the world’s second-largest religion. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims and estimates of the number of Muslims in the United States vary widely from 2.5 to 7 million. The 19 violent extremists who struck the U.S. on 9/11 belonged to a movement that may not have more than a few thousand members. Millions of Muslims expressed heartfelt horror and solidarity with the families of the victims. And remember too that some of those killed in the Twin Trade Towers were, yes, Muslim.

Christianity has its extremists who mistakenly and even criminally use violence to achieve evil purposes which they wrapped in the rationales of religious zealotry. Most Americans don’t consider that a reason to scapegoat all of Christianity. Why would we use the actions of a minority within Islam to condemn all Muslims?

Most Americans don’t realize that Islam reveres Mother Mary and holds up Jesus as a great prophet. We don’t learn this; we know very little of Islam. We should educate ourselves. You couldn’t go wrong starting with Reza Aslan’s book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

Baptist minister and Wake Forest University professor Charles Kimball’s theological scholarship about how religions sometimes go wrong provides some additional useful information. We need to equip ourselves to see the five signs he’s identified in his book When Religion Becomes Evil. Before you think “Islam,” think the Christian Crusades, think what our religious rationales did to Native Americans, too. Kimball provides a needed antidote to the poison Gingrich and company pedal.

That America brings together peoples from all parts of the world and aspires to treats everyone as an equal is our strength and our message to the world. We should welcome our Islamic brothers and sisters into the circle of memorials surrounding Ground Zero. We should hold hands and pray with them, so that our children see what freedom and compassion mean in daily practice. We should let freedom ring throughout our land calling all to live beneath their vine and fig tree in peace and unafraid.

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Joe Volk

Joe Volk is executive director of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a nonpartisan Quaker lobby in the public interest. www.fcnl.org