Writing on the controversy over a planned Islamic community center near Ground Zero, conservative columnist Ross Douthat asserted that nativism and xenophobia have played a positive role in American history.
Douthat argued that there are “two Americas,” one principled and pluralistic, the other reactionary and culturally rigid. The second, in his opinion, has been just as responsible for our current cultural diversity as the first:
…Both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success. During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.
…So it is today with Islam. The first America is correct to insist on Muslims’ absolute right to build and worship where they wish. But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.
That intolerance for change has played a role in American history is indisputable. But intolerance still isn’t the “right” way to press for integration.
By defending the right of Muslim Americans to build a community center in lower Manhattan, the “first America” is working to protect the rights of mainstream Muslims and the foundational ideals of our country. Meanwhile, some on the right have used the controversy over the Islamic center to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment or score political points, potentially alienating moderate Muslims by lumping them together with radical terrorists. Such behavior may have precedent – but that doesn’t make it acceptable.