The question of the week in Washington is whether President Obama will pay a political price for defending the right of New York Muslims to build a religious center near Ground Zero. The answer is probably yes, but there’s a more important question.

Are the critics of the center encouraging America’s enemies and undermining our national security? The answer to that one is definitely yes.

Those critics — mainly Republicans, but including some cowering Democrats like Senate leader Harry Reid — are playing a cynical and dangerous game, stirring up xenophobic fears for short-term political gains. Take Newt Gingrich, who is clearly running for president and trying to attract attention.

“We’d be quite happy to have a mosque built near the World Trade Center,” he says, “the morning one church and one synagogue are opened in Mecca.” What? Our standard for religious tolerance in America is now set by Saudi Arabia? Does Gingrich understand anything about the country he wants to lead?

Then there’s the argument that Obama is “turning a deaf ear” to public opinion. Yes, the latest CNN poll shows two out of three Americans against the mosque, but that number is partly based on false impressions. The mosque will be a small part of a large building housing such subversive facilities as swimming pools and daycare centers. No minarets towering over Ground Zero, no Arabic calls to prayer echoing through Lower Manhattan.

Even if public opinion opposes the mosque, should that be the basis for a decision? The essence of democracy is not majority rule but minority rights. Liberty in this country should not be subject to polls or even votes. But standing up for unpopular minorities is an unpopular position right now.

America is going through a nasty period — all too common in our history — of blaming our troubles on foreigners. The Arizona law cracking down on undocumented workers is one example; so is the opposition to an Islamic center in the Tennessee town of Murfreesboro. As one protestor told a public meeting there in June, “Everybody knows they’re trying to kill us. Somebody has to stand up and take this country back.”

That’s a ridiculous statement, easy to dismiss and disregard, except for one thing. It reflects an attitude that’s deeply damaging to America’s national interest, especially at a time when we have troops on the ground in two Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics like Gingrich, and that woman in Murfreesboro, are accepting and encouraging Al Qaida’s worldview — that there is a holy war going on between the East and West, Islam and Christianity.

Obama has consistently battled against that view: pointing to his middle name, his Muslim relatives and his time in the Islamic world. He has identified with peace-loving Muslims and tried to marginalize the extremists. “Al Qaida is not Islam,” he said at a White House dinner marking Ramadan, “it’s a gross distortion of Islam.”

Not all Muslim leaders have been quick enough to condemn violence. But the tragedy here is that the leaders who want to build the mosque in New York are outspoken foes of terrorism and committed to cementing relations with other religions. Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, and wife of the imam who heads the project, told the news program “Democracy Now”: “We have been in the bridge-building business for a long time.”

In fact, she said, the idea for the center grew out of talks with Jewish and Christian leaders who urged Muslims to develop institutions comparable to YMCAs and Jewish community centers. That’s the way to connect to a community and gain acceptance, notes Khan: “Once you go from a place of worship to an institute that serves the general public is when that faith becomes Americanized.”

But instead of supporting that process of Americanization, and encouraging mainstream Muslims, foes of the center refuse to see a difference between “the religion of Islam (and) the actions of the extremists” that brought down the twin towers, says Khan. The result: reinforcing Al Qaida’s propaganda “that the United States is hostile to Islam (and) strengthening the hand of the extremists, who are the very people we are all trying to stand against.”

She’s right. The foes of the Islamic center are not fighting our enemies but helping them. Helping them to demonize America, recruit terrorists and organize the resistance that threatens our soldiers abroad and our security at home. All for a few votes, or a few minutes on TV. Shame on them.

Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at