The furor over the Islamic center variously called the Ground Zero mosque,
Cordoba House and Park 51 has large implications for the future of Islam in the
US and perhaps beyond.
The debate is as unexpected as it is
extraordinary. One would have thought that the event that made Islam a national
issue would be an act of terrorism. Or the discovery that Islamists had
penetrated the US security services. Or the dismaying results of survey
research. Or an apologetic presidential speech.
But no, something
symbolic roiled the body politic – the prospect of a mosque in close proximity
to the World Trade Center’s former location.
What began as a local zoning
issue has morphed into a national debate with potential foreign-policy
Its symbolic quality fit a pattern established in other
Western countries: Islamic coverings on females spurred repeated national
debates in France from 1989 onward.
The Swiss banned the building of
minarets. The murder of Theo van Gogh profoundly affected the Netherlands, as
did the publication of anti- Muhammad cartoons in Denmark.
after the Islamic center’s location had generated weeks of controversy did the
issue of individuals, organizations and funding behind the project finally come
to the fore. Personally, I do not object to a truly moderate Muslim institution
near Ground Zero; conversely, I object to an Islamist institution being
Indeed, building the center in such close proximity
to Ground Zero, given the intense emotions aroused, will likely redound against
the longterm interests of Muslims in the US.
THIS NEW emotionalism marks
the start of a difficult stage for Islamists in the US. Although their origins
as an organized force go back to the founding of the Muslim Student Association
in 1963, they came of age politically in the mid-1990s when they emerged as a
force in US public life.
I was fighting Islamists back then, and things
went badly. It was, in practical terms, just Steven Emerson and me versus
hundreds of thousands of Islamists. He and I could not find adequate
intellectual support, money, media interest or political backing.
cause felt hopeless.
My lowest point came in 1999, when a retired US
foreign service officer named Richard Curtiss spoke on Capitol Hill about “the
potential of the American Muslim community” and compared its advances to
Muhammad’s battles in seventh-century Arabia. He flat-out predicted that, just
as Muhammad had prevailed, so too would American Muslims.
spoke only about changing policy toward Israel, his themes implied a broader
Islamist takeover of the US. Disconsolate, I could not fight his
But 9/11 provided a wake-up call, ending Emerson’s and my
sense of hopelessness. Americans reacted not just to that day’s horrifying
violence, but also to the Islamists’ outrageous insistence on blaming the
attacks on US foreign policy, their blatant denial that the perpetrators were
Muslims, and the intense popularity of the attacks among
Scholars, columnists, bloggers, media personalities and
activists became more knowledgeable about Islam, developing into a community
focused on the Islamist threat, a community that now feels like a
The Islamic Center controversy represents the movement’s
emergence as a political force, offering an angry, potent reaction inconceivable
just a decade ago.
The energetic push-back of recent months finds me
partially elated: Those who reject Islamism and all its works now constitute a
majority and are on the march. For the first time in 15 years, I feel I may be
on the winning team.
But I have one concern: the team’s increasing
anti-Islamic tone. Misled by the Islamists’ insistence that there is no such
thing as “moderate Islam,” my allies often fail to distinguish between Islam (a
faith) and Islamism (a radical utopian ideology aiming to implement Islamic law
in its totality). This amounts not just to an intellectual error but a policy
dead-end. Targeting all Muslims conflicts with basic Western notions, lumps
friends together with foes, and ignores the inescapable fact that Muslims alone
can offer an antidote to Islamism. As I often note, radical Islam is the
problem, and moderate Islam is the solution.
This lesson learned, the
defeat of Islamism can come into sight.
The writer (www.DanielPipes.org)
is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at
the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.