There were a protest and counter-protest in New York yesterday over the Islamic community center project, a controversy that has lasted far too long already. Many of the protesters who don’t want the project completed held up signs with viciously anti-Muslim sentiments, while they should have had signs saying “I’m among the easily manipulated Americans who don’t know what I’m talking about but was told I should be angry about this, so I am!”

The irony of their Islamophobia is that they’re playing right into their enemies’ hands. I refer not to Imam Faisel Abdul Rauf, but to the extremist Muslims who attacked us nearly 9 years ago — Al Qaeda. By spewing anti-Islam slogans and fomenting hate against Muslims, they’re helping Al Qaeda recruit new members.

You see, Osama Bin Laden and his top lieutenants love telling young people in the middle east that the USA is conducting a war on Islam. They convince them that America hates them and their religion and wants them dead, so they have to fight back in any way possible, preferably by killing us first. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the message the protesters — and Newt Gingrich and other right-wing wackos — are sending. They don’t trust any Muslims, believe they’re all here to kill us, and must be stopped at all costs.

Don’t be surprised when this escalates into anti-Islamic violence in the US, nor when images of that violence or these protests are broadcast on Al Jazeera and other media outlets in the Arab world, serving to exacerbate the problem. It also doesn’t help when our own religious extremists are spreading the hate to an audience that’s too quick to believe nonsense — take Pat Robertson, who said Thursday he’s worried about a Muslim takeover of the US. That’s about as likely as reason and logic taking over the “700 Club.”

If Gingrich and Robertson and others feel that Islam is a threat to them, what exactly do they think the US has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? Those are Muslim nations, and the goal is supposed to be getting rid of the extremists so the moderate Muslims can run their countries in peace. While I think both wars have been a waste of time (and worse, flesh and blood), you’d think the proponents would understand the distinction.

They also get all irate over the possibility of Saudis underwriting the community center, apparently forgetting that that’s where $3 billion in funding for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (parent company of Fox News Channel) comes from. I have railed against Saudi Arabia over its human rights violations for years, but where were these Saudi haters when Dubya was holding hands with Prince Abdullah five years ago? Suspiciously silent, they may have been out of the office at the time, too busy refueling their vehicles with Saudi oil. We import over a million gallons of their crude oil every day, yet I don’t hear any of these bigots calling for us to boycott the nation that gave birth to fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers.

Though I’m not one to support any religion or religious institutions, the better strategy would be to not only tolerate Muslims in the US, but to embrace them. You don’t have to show them love, just don’t show them hate — instead, show the enemy that we’re not at war with their religion, but with their extremists. That’s the message President Bush voiced repeatedly, and it’s the reason President Obama went to the mideast shortly after he assumed office. They understood that alienating one-sixth of the planet’s population is no way to secure the homeland, but a good way to threaten it.

As for the Park51 project, I won’t be surprised in the coming days to hear that the developer has decided not to build it. That conclusion won’t be due to kowtowing to the Islamaphobes, but simply because of a lack of money. Recent reports say that, thus far, a mere $16,000 has been raised. That’s about what it cost my sister-in-law to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan 25 years ago, so it’s a long way from the funds necessary to construct a 13-story tower.