The debate over Park51 has been short on moderation and has been portrayed in some quarters as evidence that the United States is anti-Islam, a faith followed by one in five people worldwide. The Frontier Post, a major Pakistani newspaper in the Afghan-border city of Peshawar, ran an editorial last week saying that "with the public discourse so predominantly dominated by hysterical sound bites of religious intolerance and xenophobia, the U.S. façade of a secular state stands exposed as pretentious and ugly."
Coverage of the story from other Muslim media outlets, al Jazeera, for instance, has been similarly harsh toward Park51 opponents. From an opposition rally in New York, one of the network's correspondents reported that "until the temperature of the rhetoric is lowered … scenes like this are likely to spread here and at other potential new mosque sites across America." Indeed, mosque construction projects have faced a backlash recently in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Wisconsin.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hosting his annual Ramadan Iftar dinner at Gracie Mansion last week, was particularly eloquent in his endorsement of the project, saying that canceling it would send a signal that "Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen. And we would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam."
The dispute may be more damaging to perceptions among the broad Muslim publics than among radicals, who already have their reasons for hating America. "It would be speculation, at this point, to comment on how the [controversy] might or might not play in extremist circles," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "There are other issues, like photos of innocents killed in a U.S. airstrike, for example, that are probably more effective as recruiting tools."
But that doesn't mean the dispute won't appear in the deluge of extremist propaganda. The counterterrorism community is expecting a message from al Qaeda's senior leadership in the next month or so, near the anniversary of 9/11. It would not be a surprise, experts say, for it to include mention of controversies like the Park51 debate or the planned burning of Korans on September 11 by a Christian leader in Florida.
With anger rising on all sides, one diplomacy tactic has been to use the fracas as an illustration of the vibrancy of the democratic process. "The fact that there is an issue that is being debated within our country and [that] will be resolved through a dialogue and applicable law and zoning regulations—this is precisely the kind of tolerance and rule of law that we do, in fact, preach through our international information programs," the State Department's Crowley told reporters last week. The outstanding question is whether moderate Muslims will be able to hear the State Department message over the chorus of angry voices.