Millions of Muslims worldwide are protesting the planned burning of the Quran by a Christian congregation in Florida on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while the citizens protesting against the building of the Ground Zero mosque are condemned as bigots. What’s wrong with this picture?

The controversy over the planned burning of the Quran is a “teachable moment” about the limits of tolerance in the Muslim world. And it is the “mainstream Muslim world” we are talking about in this case, not the radicals in al-Qaida or Hezbollah.

Tens of millions of “moderate Muslims” in the “Arab street” are in a frenzy over what 50 people might do in exercise of their First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. American officials, from the president to Defense Secretary Gates to Gen. Petraeus, found it necessary to condemn the book burning as a “provocation” and to ask the pastor to cancel the event.

So, to the world’s political elites and the president of the United States, it’s not acceptable for millions of Americans to protest against the building of the Ground Zero mosque because the imam has a First Amendment right to do it, and those protests are an expression of bigotry. But it’s not all right for a small group of Christians in Florida to exercise their First Amendment rights by burning copies of the Quran on the anniversary of the day when 19 Muslims killed 3,000 of our fellow citizens in the name of Islam?

I do not endorse or recommend burning religious books as a form of protest, and if the pastor in Florida asked my opinion, I would tell him not to burn the Quran. To Muslims, the Quran is the supreme expression of the word of Allah. The problem here is the immense chasm between how Americans look at this issue and how the Muslim world looks at it.

Americans can react in one of two ways to this controversy: We can learn some important lessons about the intolerance toward free speech and free expression across the Muslim world and begin thinking about the profound threat to freedom inherent in this “clash of civilizations” – or we can decide to accommodate to the “sensitivities” of Muslims and agree to henceforth refrain from any speech or practice that offends those sensitivities.

The political fallout from this controversy will depend on which choice our political leaders make among those two alternatives. It is clear that the American people as a whole are learning the lesson that the chasm between the two cultures is much wider and deeper than the agenda of radical jihad. The lesson millions of Americans are learning is that our freedoms are incompatible with Shariah law. The lesson President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg want us to draw from this controversy is that we must accommodate our beliefs and practices to Shariah law to keep from offending Muslim sensitivities.

If President Obama wanted to demonstrate that he is in fact the leader and spokesman for the American people, he would reply to the Muslim protesters with words like these:

In America, all of our citizens, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, have the right to express their opinions openly and freely. In America, citizens have the right to burn books if they choose to do so, even religious books. When a small group of people decide to burn a religious book, that act does not represent a statement by that community or by the American people. But as a nation, as a free people, we will defend their right to freedom of speech. People of the Muslim faith outside of the United States should not only respect this freedom of expression, they should also recognize that there are 305 million other Americans who are not burning the Quran.

Unfortunately, we have not heard anything like this from Barack Obama. We have heard only words that serve to further inflame the passion of religious intolerance.

In the minds of the Florida pastor and his congregation, the burning the Quran is a way of calling attention to the fact that the 9/11 terrorists did what they did in the name of Allah, in the name of Islam. Mainstream Muslims who object to this reading of history have had nine years to demonstrate that Islam as a religion does not condone violence or support jihad against the West.

The threats against America in reaction to the planned burning of the Quran by one Christian congregation shows the chasm between the two civilizations is as wide as ever. It also shows that some of our leaders still have trouble choosing sides.

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