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."
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.
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