Will New York's Mosque Protests Aid Terrorist Recruiters?

Why New York's anti-mosque protests worry counterterrorism experts.

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The continuing controversy over a proposed Islamic community center and mosque to be built near the site of the former World Trade Center has some in the counterterrorism community worried about the fallout in the Muslim world.

Terrorism experts in Washington have been closely following the protests over the Park51 project, concerned that the hostile rhetoric and anti-Islam messages will undermine the extensive and expensive U.S. public diplomacy that has tried to positively influence foreign public opinion and present the United States as a beacon of religious freedom and tolerance. It is a particular problem when the loudest, most inflammatory voices are the ones who get the megaphone of the media. "These folks from both sides, who get paid to say controversial things, rarely let their ignorance impede their intolerance. In this case, we're dealing with some of the moderate Muslim voices that we've long tried to project," says one senior counterterrorism official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

In recent days, the leader of the Park51 project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has been the target of critics who portrayed him, at best, as insensitive to some 9/11 victims' families and, at worst, as an anti-American radical posing as a moderate. During all of this, he has been far from the scene of the controversy, on a State Department-sponsored public diplomacy mission to Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. So it fell to State Department spokesman PJ Crowley to speak in his defense: "[Rauf's] work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known, and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States."

Rauf has participated in such outreach efforts with State's Bureau of International Information Programs since 2007. But the U.S. government's backing of Rauf hasn't dampened blistering criticism of the imam or the project. Former presidential adviser turned conservative pundit Dick Morris, appearing on Fox News, said that the center would become a "command center for terrorists." Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich drew a comparison between the project's backers and Nazis. Rick Lazio, a GOP candidate for New York governor, called Rauf a "terrorist sympathizer." The criticism, however outlandish, is resonating: Seven out of 10 Americans oppose the project, according to a CBS poll out last .

Reaction has not fallen neatly along ideological lines. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid publicly opposes Park51, as does New York's Democratic Gov. David Patterson, deferring to the wishes of some 9/11 families. Former solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, Ted Olson, who lost his wife on the 9/11 jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon, has come out in favor of the project, citing the Constitution's promise of religious freedom.

For all the criticism of some of his past statements, including one notable quote in which the imam talked about how U.S. policies contributed to the deaths of Muslims, Rauf would be a strange bedfellow with religious zealots like Osama bin Laden. He is a leading voice for Muslim moderation in dealings with Israel, the United States, and interfaith efforts writ large. But he is also a Sufi, a follower of a mystical strand of Islam. Sufis are viewed as apostates by more hard-line Muslim sects like Wahhabism and Salafism, a violent strain of which inspires al Qaeda. Indeed, from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, radical Salafist Muslims are the sworn enemies of the more liberal Sufis.

U.S. diplomacy efforts since 9/11 have largely focused on using moderate Muslims as ambassadors to counter extremist voices in the Muslim world. A 2007 Rand study advocated partnering with moderate Sufis. "Because of their victimization by Salafis and Wahhabis, traditionalists and Sufis are natural allies of the West to the extent that common ground can be found with them," the report concluded.

The conflation of anything Islamic with terrorism is one of the most insidious aspects of the entire affair, says Howard Gambrill Clark, author of the upcoming book Revolt Against Al-Qa'ida: A Strategy to Empower Muslims and Collapse International Insurgency. "Groups like al Qaeda try to convince the world that they speak for all of Islam, when they do not," says Clark. "So, rhetoric equating the two [moderates and radicals] is counterproductive to empowering moderates."