THE TWO leaders of the West's struggle against Islamic terrorism, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, rightly emphasize that just a small minority of Muslims embrace terror acts. It is crucial in the struggle against terrorism for mainstream Muslims to isolate and turn against those who kill innocents in the name of their faith. This is why it was so dismaying when a Colorado congressman talked about bombing Islamic holy sites to avenge a hypothetical nuclear attack by terrorists -- as if the faith itself were at fault. Osama bin Laden could not ask for a better recruiter.
Tom Tancredo, a Republican from Littleton, Colo., was asked earlier this month by a talk radio host what the United States should do if terrorists use a nuclear weapon against it. He replied: ''Well, what if you said something like -- if this happens in the United States, and we determine that it is the result of extremist, fundamentalist Muslims, you know, you could take out their holy sites." When the host asked him if he meant ''bombing Mecca," he said, ''Yeah." Since then, Tancredo has tried to minimize his remarks, but a week has passed and he has not apologized for them. If he doesn't promptly, the House of Representatives should take action to clarify that he is not speaking for Congress.
The State Department saw the danger that Tancredo's words pose to US standing in the Islamic world. Its spokesman, Adam Ereli, condemned the remarks as ''insulting and offensive to all of us." He went on to state: ''We respect Islam as a religion, we respect its holy sites and we . . . respect the dignity and sanctity of other religions."
Respect for Islam as a religion must be a pillar of US antiterrorism policy if the United States is to function effectively in a world with more than 1 billion Muslims. But Muslims -- and others -- will have reason to doubt that principle when a member of Congress -- and of its International Relations Committee, no less -- talks loosely about bombing Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.
Tancredo's remarks recall those of Lieutenant General William Boykin, who was reported in 2003 to have said that when he was fighting in Somalia he knew he would capture a Muslim opponent because ''I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his God was an idol." Although President Bush distanced himself from Boykin's statements, the general continues to be a Pentagon deputy undersecretary for intelligence.
At a pivotal time in relations between the United States and the Islamic world, Muslims are getting a dangerously mixed message from representatives of the US government. The House of Representatives should condemn Tancredo's remarks as forcefully as the State Department has.