The debate over the "ground zero mosque" has evolved into something much bigger than whether a Muslim center should be built two blocks from hallowed ground.

This debate is really about whether Americans still have the self-confidence to stand up for our Constitution's principles - or whether we've become so fearful that we're eager to junk them.

I say this although I believe the idea of building a mosque in this place at this time is unwise. And I sympathize with the families of 9/11 victims who are uncomfortable with the prospect (although some of the families support it).

But this issue has been so shamefully exploited by political opportunists - and those who believe America is at war with all Muslims - that it's becoming a national scandal. It's time we all took a deep breath and considered what's really at stake.

Contrary to the hysteria in the blogosphere, the site would not be a mega-mosque but a community center-cum-prayer space two blocks from ground zero. It would not have a minaret.

The imam spearheading the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, already leads a mosque 12 blocks away. He frequently engages with Jewish and Christian leaders, and writes widely on the compatibility of Islamic thought with Western democracy. The State Department just sent him to tour the Arab emirates and talk about religious tolerance in the United States. And Rauf is a member of the Sufi Muslim sect, which is despised and attacked by radical Islamists for its willingness to draw from other cultures.

That said, some of his statements blaming U.S. foreign policy for inspiring the 9/11 attack are jarring given his desire to lead a mosque near ground zero. The same goes for his advocacy of sharia law for American Muslims in personal matters like inheritance and divorce.

And there are legitimate concerns about where he will raise the $100 million needed to build his center, and whether it will come from Mideast sources.

However, there is zero evidence of any link between Rauf and Islamist terrorism.

So why has the hysteria over this community center risen to a fever pitch?

The answer lies in the willingness of politicians, mainly Republicans, to hype the mosque controversy before elections. Leading the pack, Newt Gingrich says approving the mosque "would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust museum." All Muslims are Nazis - get it?

New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino has called the proposed community center "a monument to those who attacked our country." All Muslims are terrorists - get it?

For Sarah Palin, it's a "knife to the heart" of 9/11 families. Never mind that al-Qaeda wants to broaden America's fight against Islamist terrorist groups into all-out war between the West and Islam. Gingrich and Palin eagerly play into al-Qaeda's hands.

This demagoguery stokes anti-Muslim feelings around the country. Republican pols claim they don't oppose religious freedom. But have any of them stood in solidarity with Muslims in Mufreesboro, Tenn., or Temecula, Calif., or other locales where local Republicans and tea partyers have opposed the building of local mosques? No way. (Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, pressed by his Republican opponent, also opposed the mosque, but at least he didn't pile on more anti-Muslim slurs.)

Have these politicians totally lost sight of what America stands for? Given Europe's problems integrating large Muslim communities, I'm always grateful our system has enabled so many Arab and South Asian immigrants to become full citizens. That's one reason we haven't had more terror attacks here.

Yes, there have been some imams who preached hate in U.S. mosques; that's a law enforcement problem. In many more cases, Muslim community leaders help alienated young Muslim immigrants find their way.

Yes, it would have been easier if Rauf had chosen a different locale. He could still defuse fears by being more transparent about funds, more modest in scale, or more willing to consider New York Gov. David Paterson's offer of another site.

But if Rauf chooses to go ahead, he is entitled to do so. As President Obama said last week: "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country."

And as Mayor Michael Bloomberg eloquently stated: "We do not honor [the 9/11 dead] by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting." Have we become so fearful that we can't recognize that?

Trudy Rubin can be reached at trubin@phillynews.com.