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October 31, 2002: Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan. Photo by Dave ChanDAVE CHAN/Handout

Last year, two New York City Muslims, Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, decided to worship at a different New York mosque every night during the month of Ramadan. They describe their rich experience at, culminating in a memorable Eid celebration at Masjid Khalifah (named after a volunteer who was killed while helping rescue a woman under attack nearby). A fitting fusion of Islam and Americana: The DJ pumped Tina Turner and Michael Jackson, and kids moonwalked. Three modestly dressed women belted out Stop! In the Name of Love, to which a niqabi spontaneously bopped and swayed.

This year, Aman and Bassam plan to visit 30 mosques in 30 states. They began with a trip to Park51, a building on Park Place two blocks from the former World Trade Center site.

The 15-storey building, abandoned after 9/11, was bought last year by a group with plans to build a Muslim community centre modelled on the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Since then, Muslims, led by Feisal Abdul Rauf, an imam of the Sufi tradition (which emphasizes tolerance and mysticism), have prayed at Park51. He and his wife, Daisy Khan, have spoken out against religious violence and have cultivated strong multifaith ties. He has advised the FBI, and she has joined the advisory panel of the 9/11 memorial and museum. In his book What's Right with Islam Is What's Right with America, the imam argues that the U.S. is the ideal society because of its Constitution. Fareed Zakaria has dubbed his vision "bin Laden's nightmare."

By May, the organizers had support for Park51 from local Jewish and Christian groups and the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. But the May 3 arrest of Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, sparked a torrential backlash. A co-ordinated campaign sought to malign all Muslims as proponents of terrorism. And with midterm election campaigns in full swing, several high-profile Republicans seized on the controversy to mobilize their base, using hyperbole, fear and disinformation.

Critics believe Park51 is inappropriate because 9/11 was committed by "Muslims." In their view, Muslims are a monolith, and all should share the guilt of al-Qaeda. Yet, this terrorist group is antithetical to Islam. The critics forget that innocent Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks, and that al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other faith.

While the GOP has shamelessly exploited voters' unease, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has passionately argued for America's defining values. Speaking of the firefighters and police officers who rushed into the Twin Towers on 9/11, he observed: "In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, 'What God do you pray to?' 'What beliefs do you hold?' We do not honour their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honour their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked." This principled approach was also echoed by President Barack Obama (although he clarified he "was not commenting" on "the wisdom" of the Ground Zero project).

The opposition to Park51 is part of a larger protest, spurred by a coalition of Tea Party groups, evangelical Christians and GOP candidates. In California, protesters recently intimidated Muslim worshippers by calling for the banning of mosques. All of this, however, could pale in comparison to a proposed Sept. 11 Koran burning by a fringe Christian group in Florida.

Is Canada immune to this vitriol? We'd like to think so. But wishful thinking is no substitute for vigilance against xenophobia, and a commitment to value all Canadians as equal. Let's not adopt a parochial vision of "Canadian values" where two-tier citizenship reigns. We need a big-tent approach rooted firmly in our Charter of Rights. Our politicians must take the high road, not exploit voters' fears for a few cheap votes. Our strength as a nation lies in adherence to our most cherished principles.