Tag: Islam

On the Wisdom Not to Do Wrong

 Jim Harper may be “put off by the domestic political ramifications” of the continuing Ground Zero mosque debate — linking to my three POLITICO Arena posts over the weekend, when the story broke, and Chris Preble’s very different Cato@Liberty post on Monday — but that’s what this debate is all about. It’s not about the law or the Constitution, at bottom, because the law is clear: we respect the right to build that mosque there, even if it would not be prudent or wise to do so.

Thus, he misses the point when he cites “conservative icon Ted Olson” who, Jim says, “expresses well how standing by our constitutional values is good counterterrorism signaling.” That may or may not be good counterterrorism signaling, but those of us who oppose this mosque being situated there are standing by our constitutional values, contrary to the implication of Jim’s contention. We’re defending the right the Constitution protects, while engaging in the robust debate it equally protects — arguing that building the mosque there, as Charles Krauthammer put it in this morning’s Washington Post, “is not just insensitive but provocative,” given the facts of the matter.

But that’s not the only non-sequitur in Jim’s argument. He goes on to say:

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.

Who’s saying that? Does Jim believe that those of us on the other side cannot distinguish the 19 long-dead “tiny band of thugs” — and all who supported them and continue to support what they did, as manifest around the world almost daily — from the great majority of Muslims who do not support Islamic terrorism?

There is a problem in the other direction, however, with those who minimize or dismiss “our vestigial fears.” The war against terrorism, which we are likely to be in for some time, requires a sober assessment of the circumstances we’re facing, neither understating nor overstating them. And one aspect of that is public opinion, including opinion, in particular, in the Muslim-American community. This morning’s New York Times has a page-one story about the divide in that community over the mosque issue. It’s those in that community who understand this issue that we need to encourage to come forward and stand for true American principles — including the principle that not everything a person has a right to do is right to do. It’s no more complicated than that.

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.

The GOP and the “Ground Zero” Mosque

Some leaders within the Republican Party seem to have fixed on a useful club with which to bludgeon the president and his fellow Democrats – Cordoba House, aka the “Ground Zero” Mosque. Over the weekend, Republican strategist Ed Rollins explained how the party would use the issue in the coming months:

ROLLINS: Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York, and it’s going to be a big, big issue for Democrats across this country.

“Face the Nation” Host Bob SCHIEFFER: So you see it as an issue that’s going to continue?

ROLLINS: Absolutely. No question about it. Every candidate – every candidate who’s in the challenge districts are going to be asked, how do you feel about building the mosque on the Ground Zero sites? 

This strategy, exploiting still-raw emotion and implicitly demonizing Muslims, threatens to trade short-term political gain for medium-term political harm to the party. And it most certainly will translate into long-term harm for the country at large.

Opposing the construction of a mosque near the Ground Zero site plays into al Qaeda’s narrative that the United States is engaged in a war with Islam, that bin Laden and his tiny band of followers represent something more than a pitiful group of murderers and thugs, and that all American Muslims are an incipient Fifth Column that must be either converted to Christianity or driven out of the country, else they will undermine American society from within.

It isn’t a political slam-dunk, either. Though 64 percent of Americans think a mosque near Ground Zero is ”inappropriate”, 60 percent of all respondents in the same survey, including 57 percent of Republicans, believe that the organizers have a right to build in that location, and presumably would not favor a government prohibition on this activity. (h/t  Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight) If anyone were to show evidence that the parties building the center were in any way linked to the 9/11 terrorists, or funded by or funding these same  terrorists, then the issues at stake would change.  But they haven’t done so, and are unlikely to do so. In the meantime, those GOP leaders who oppose the mosque betray a basic inability to discern public attitudes, even as they propel this country on a ruinous course, headlong into a civilizational war which pits all Americans against all Muslims.

A number of public officials and commentators, not all of them Obama supporters, have staked out a position that walks this country back from that precipice. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s courageous and eloquent statementon this issue should be read by all, not just Republicans. But Bloomberg is unlikely to swing opinion within the GOP base. So too with Fareed Zakaria, who nonetheless deserves enormous credit for distancing himself from any organization that would adopt a public position of thinly veiled bigotry, especially one whose mission is “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” Dan Drezner’s take is aimed squarely at right-of-center readers, and sprinkled with a tone of sarcasm; but he is a pointy-headed intellectual, so he’ll have a hard time convincing the most skeptical of the lot.

A more convincing spokesman for sensible voices on the Right is former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wisely opposes a short-sighted and cynical political strategy to exploit anti-Muslim sentiments. Likewise, Mark Halperin recognizes the political salience of an anti-mosque stance, but advises party leaders to steer clearof that position. Josh Barro at National Review Online renders a devastating refutation of all the dubious arguments erected to block the mosque. 

Indeed, George W. Bush himself set the tone in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, counseling against retaliation against innocent Muslims who had nothing to do with the attacks, and noting that a number of Muslims were killed on 9/11. Other conservative organizations and institutions took notice of Bush’s leadership, and wisely sacked the few voices who preached violence against all Muslims because nineteen of their coreligionists had perpetrated the attacks.

Not quite nine years later, we’ve come full-circle. With Bush enjoying retirement in Texas, who within the GOP will affirm the party’s position that declaring a war on Islam does not advance our nation’s security?

Obama on the Ground Zero Mosque

Politico Arena asks for comments today on President Obama’s Ground Zero Mosque remarks:

My response:

Speaking expressly “as President” last evening [Friday], Mr. Obama has weighed in on the Ground Zero Islamic mosque controversy – and blatantly misstated it.

This controversy has nothing to do with Muslims having “the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” or with their ”right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan,” as Obama put it. Nor does it have anything to do with the First Amendment. Rather, the issue is simply one of common decency and sensitivity to the feelings of others.

The president is right about one thing: Ground Zero is “hallowed ground.” It is the ground where some 3,000 people of all faiths lost their lives in a brutal attack by radical Muslims acting in the name of their religion, however distorted their beliefs may have been. Those who lost loved ones that day, to say nothing of the rest of us, cannot be indifferent to that fact – as those who support the mosque’s location near Ground Zero seem to be.

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John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

Every Time I Say “Terrorism,” the Patriot Act Gets More Awesome

Can I send Time magazine the bill for the new crack in my desk and the splinters in my forehead? Because their latest excretion on the case of Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose and its relation to Patriot Act surveillance powers is absolutely maddening:

The Justice Department won’t say whether provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate and charge Colleen LaRose. But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act’s fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law’s provisions weren’t directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker “Jihad Jane” is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say. That’s because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Sadly, this is practically a genre resorted to by lazy writers whenever a domestic terror investigation is making headlines. It consists of indulging in a lot of fuzzy speculation about how the Patriot Act might have been crucial—for all we know!—to a successful  investigation, even when every shred of available public evidence suggests otherwise.  My favorite exemplar of this genre comes from a Fox News piece penned by journalist-impersonator Cristina Corbin after the capture of some Brooklyn bomb plotters last spring, with the bold headline: “Patriot Act Likely Helped Thwart NYC Terror Plot, Security Experts Say.” The actual article contains nothing to justify the headline: It quotes some lawyers saying vague positive things about the Patriot Act, then tries to explain how the law expanded surveillance powers, but mostly botches the basic facts.  From what we know thanks to the work of real reporters,  the initial tip and the key evidence in that case came from a human infiltrator who steered the plotters to locations that had been physically bugged, not new Patriot tools.

Of course, it may well be that National Security Letters or other Patriot powers were invoked at some point in this investigation—the question is whether there’s any good reason to suspect they made an important difference. And that seems highly dubious. LaRose’s indictment cites the content of private communications, which probably would have been obtained using a boring old probable cause warrant—and the standard for that is far higher than for a traditional pen/trap order, which would have enabled them to be getting much faster access to more comprehensive cell records. Maybe earlier on, then, when they were compiling the evidence for those tools?  But as several reports on the investigation have noted, “Jihad Jane” was being tracked online by a groups of anti-jihadi amateurs some three years ago. As a member of one group writes sarcastically on the site Jawa Report, the “super sekrit” surveillance tool they used to keep abreast of LaRose’s increasingly disturbing activities was… Google. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the FBI could’ve handled this one with pre-Patriot authority, and a fortiori with Patriot authority restrained by some common-sense civil liberties safeguards.

What’s a little more unusual is to see this segue into the kind of argument we usually see in the wake of an intelligence failure, where the case is then seen as self-evidently justifying still more intrusive surveillance powers, in this case the expansion of the “lone wolf” authority currently applicable only to foreigners, allowing extraordinarily broad and secretive FISA surveillance to be conducted against people with no actual ties to a terror group or other “foreign power.” Yet as Time itself notes:

In fact, Justice Department terrorism experts are privately unimpressed by LaRose. Hers was not a particularly threatening plot, they say, and she was not using any of the more challenging counter-surveillance measures that more experienced jihadis, let alone foreign intelligence agents, use.

Which, of course, is a big part of the reason we have a separate system for dealing with agents of foreign powers: They are typically trained in counterintelligence tradecraft with access to resources and networks far beyond those of ordinary nuts. What possible support can LaRose’s case provide for the proposition that these industrial-strength tools should now be turned on American citizens?  They caught her—and without much trouble, by the looks of it. Sure, this domestic nut may have invoked to Islamist ideology rather than the commands of Sam the Dog or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories… but so what? She’s still one more moderately dangerous unhinged American in a country that has its fair share, and has been dealing with them pretty well under the auspices of Title III for a good while now.

Executed for Sorcery? In 2009?

A court in Saudi Arabia has sentenced a Lebanese television host to death for the crime of “sorcery.” Apparently Ali Hussein Sibat was recognized by Saudi religious police as he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. On his show, he gave advice to callers and made predictions about their future. He could be executed any day now. In an article in the Daily Star of Lebanon, the leading English-language newspaper in the Middle East, Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer and University of Chicago dean Raja Kamal call on King Abdullah to face down the religious police and release Ali Hussein Sabat to Lebanon:

This case illustrates the tremendous power of the religious police in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah faces an uphill battle in his struggle against extremists; not only the Al-Qaeda terrorists who kill innocent people, but the religious police and judiciary, who kill innocents as well….

The king and his supporters need to act decisively to eliminate the power of the extremists to carry out improper arrests, level false charges, coerce testimony, and conduct unjust trials, especially those culminating in murder. Sibat and others in his situation are being made into human sacrifices by the extremists in order to maintain their own power….

Lebanon also has a responsibility to speak up for and to protect its own citizens. The government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri has a special relationship with the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. That’s why the government needs to show that, as the representative of a democratic Arab country with a strong broadcasting industry, it will support freedom of expression – particularly that of Ali Hussein Sibat and others who broadcast from Lebanon.