National Security Network

Extreme Rhetoric Harms Our Security and Values

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Report 16 August 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security American Values Cordoba House national security


As President Obama's weekend remarks about freedom of religion unleashed a new storm of commentary over the Cordoba House - the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan - another audience was listening.  National security and terrorism experts point to specific efforts by al Qaeda propagandists to seize on hostile commentary and undermine American Muslims' feelings of safety and welcome in this country.  The president's remarks drew an outpouring of support from mainstream centrist and conservative commentators. Yet, despite the warnings from our security professionals, some conservatives see a political advantage to this sort of divisive and damaging rhetoric. But at what cost in frayed social cohesion at home, and propaganda victory for our opponents abroad, does this come?  Political commentator Mark Halperin writes today that the cost "is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve."

Opposition to mosque construction feeds into al Qaeda's framework. 

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly writes, "The Cordoba Initiative, which is headed by an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an enemy of al Qaeda, no less than Rudolph Giuliani and the Anti-Defamation League are enemies of al Qaeda.  Bin Laden would sooner dispatch a truck bomb to destroy the Cordoba Initiative's proposed community center than he would attack the ADL...  I know Feisal Abdul Rauf... He represents what Bin Laden fears most: a Muslim who believes that it is possible to remain true to the values of Islam and, at the same time, to be a loyal citizen of a Western, non-Muslim country. Bin Laden wants a clash of civilizations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants." [Jeffrey Goldberg, 8/3/10]

Brian Fishman, Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Research Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, says that "Anwar al-Awlaki, the most important recruiter of western Muslims into jihadi movements, has been hammering at the point that there is a double standard for Muslims in the West and the 'we' are soon going to crackdown on Muslims.  He is implicitly admitting that these folks are very well integrated into American society, but warns them that social comity won't last." [Brian Fishman, 8/16/10]

Malcolm Nance, a former military intelligence officer, master Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor and author of An End to al-Qaeda, recently explains, "When you frame it as a fight against Islam and Islamic fundamentalism ... you're almost encouraging Osama bin Laden's line of thinking. He loves this idea that this is seen as a clash between Islam and the West; he wants that, he thrives on that." [American Prospect, 6/30/10]

Marc Lynch, Senior Fellow at Center for New American Security and professor at George Washington University, similarly writes, "the U.S. has a vital national security interest in preventing a spiral towards a ‘clash of civilizations' which would strengthen al-Qaeda's appeal and narrative." [Marc Lynch, Foreign Policy, 7/22/10]

Michael Gerson writes today that, "a mosque that rejects radicalism is not a symbol of the enemy's victory; it is a prerequisite for our own." In fact the New York Times reports that, "two-year study by a group of academics on American Muslims and terrorism concluded that contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism... It disclosed that many mosque leaders had put significant effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring antiviolence forums and scrutinizing teachers and texts." [Michael Gerson,  8/16/10. NY Times, 8/8/10. Duke University, 1/10]

Threats to security and social cohesion "is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve."  GOP strategist Mark McKinnon said this morning on Morning Joe, "Usually Republicans are forthright in defending the Constitution. And here we are, reinforcing al Qaeda's message that we're at war with Muslims. So we've got this issue; then we've got the 14th Amendment issue, where Republicans are saying you're not welcome here, when we were the architects of the 14th Amendment. So, I see a bad pattern where we're headed as a Republican Party."  Political analyst Mark Halperin warns, "[W]hat is happening now - the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric - is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve."

Gingrich has explicitly equated American Muslims and Nazis, saying this morning, "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington...there is no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."  As Politico reported yesterday, "Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, though he represents a relatively heavily Muslim state, rebuffed pleas from local Muslim leaders to back off his suggestion that the mosque would ‘degrade and disrespect' the Trade Center site. A spokesman for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cited both ‘the wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda' in opposing it. But it was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who seemed to fit the issue most clearly into a recognizable political category of culture war. ‘Is it just that we can offend Americans and Christians, but not foreigners and Muslims?' he asked."  Rep. Peter King (R-NY) also weighed in, saying, "It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero."  As Politico reported yesterday, Rep. King has made similar comments in the past:  "‘Unfortunately, we have too many mosques in this country,' King said in 2007. ‘Too many people who are sympathetic to radical Islam. We should be looking at them more carefully.'" [NY Times, 8/14/10.  Newt Gingrich via Media Matters, 8/16/10.  Morning Joe, 8/16/10. Politico, 8/15/10. Politico, 8/15/10. Morning Joe, 8/16/10. Mark Halperin via Time, 8/16/10]

Fringe rhetoric draws growing bipartisan condemnation.  Today, the Washington Post's Michael Gerson, speechwriter to President George W. Bush, wrote: "No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment...And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself."  Writing for Time Magazine, Mark Halperin warned of the implications of exploiting this controversy for political gain: "a national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner - the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy." And this morning, former Congressman Joe Scarborough (R-FL) and former George W. Bush strategist Mark McKinnon expressed frustration with the direction taken by conservatives.  McKinnon said that, "Usually Republicans are forthright in defending the Constitution. And here we are, reinforcing al Qaeda's message that we're at war with Muslims."   Over the weekend, Scarborough wrote on his Twitter feed: "I am saddened by the words of some who suggest that following the First Amendment is caving into ‘Islamic extremists.'" [Michael Gerson, 8/16/10. Mark Halperin, 8/16/10. Morning Joe, 8/16/10. Joe Scarborough, 8/15/10]

What We're Reading

Continued flooding has left one-fifth of Pakistan under water.

China passed Japan in the second quarter to become the world's second-largest economy behind the United States.

Iran said it will begin building a new site to enrich uranium in March, moving ahead with a plan that defies international efforts to curb its nuclear development.

South Korean and U.S. troops launched computerized military drills despite North Korea warnings that it would retaliate with a "merciless counterblow."

President Barack Obama personally warned Turkey's prime minister that unless Ankara shifts its position on Israel and Iran it stands little chance of obtaining the US drone technology it wants to buy.

Gen. David Petraeus began a campaign to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the American-led coalition can still succeed in Afghanistan despite months of setbacks, saying he had not come to the country to preside over a "graceful exit."

The Israeli military began dismantling a concrete barrier that protected residents of a once-troubled district on the edge of Jerusalem from Palestinian sniper fire.

Gunmen robbed four commercial ships anchored near the southern oil hub of Basra in a rare attack off the Iraqi coast.

A career politician named Jang Song Taek recently became the second most powerful man in North Korea, injecting a dose of unpredictability into the power handoff playing out in Pyongyang.

A major gems company has reiterated a trade ban on all diamonds from Zimbabwe's Marange fields despite an official sale last week.

Commentary of the Day

Steve Solomon documents how coming water shortages will destabilize Pakistan.

Bill Richardson lays out five ways to leverage our trade partnerships to advance a more collaborative relationship with the rest of the Americas.

Fred Kaplan profiles Defense Secretary Robert Gates.