The Strategic Dimension of the Mosque Debate

There are many facets to the debate about the Muslim community center and mosque proposed for the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory near Ground Zero in southern Manhattan. My colleague David Boaz’s observation on the United States pluralist founding tradition was a delight. Important as they are, I’m put off by the domestic political ramifications (1, 2, 3, 4), if only because of the crassness and opportunism that inhabit all politics.

There is a strategic dimension to the story. This episode is signaling to audiences around the world the current relationship between the United States and Islam. These audiences might support or oppose the United States and act accordingly to undermine or support terrorist groups. For these people, knowledge of a Muslim community, active in New York and proximate to Ground Zero, would help put the lie to the “clash of civilizations” narrative sought by al-Qaeda and its franchises, undercutting their support.

The debate itself sends signals: If the United States were predominantly anti-Muslim, this debate wouldn’t be happening. If our political leaders had the power to decide matters of religious observance, this debate wouldn’t be happening. The debate is helping to show Muslim populations around the world—who might not know otherwise—that we think and debate about these things, that we are a functioning democratic republic, and that our country is undecided about the position of Muslims in the United States or, at worst, weakly anti-Muslim. 

In the video clip after the jump, conservative icon Ted Olson expresses well, I think, how standing by our constitutional values is good counterterrorist signaling.

These strategic considerations may not be dispositive, but my preference is for this project to go forward and communicate to worldwide audiences that we are still the pluralistic, welcoming, confident society we have been in the past.

Islam did not attack the United States on 9/11. It is simple collectivism—the denial of individual agency that libertarians reject—to believe that the tiny band of thugs who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks speak for an entire religion, culture, or creed. Our sympathy to families of 9/11 victims and our vestigial fears should not allow us to indulge gross and wrong generalizations about individuals of any faith.

A recent Cato Capitol Hill briefing is relevant to all this. You can review “Strategic Counterterrorism: The Signals We Send” on the Cato web site. Cato’s recent publication, “Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It,” addresses many dimensions of the terrorism and homeland security problems, including the strategic logic of terrorism, to which we respond (whether we mean to or not) during debates about Muslims in America.