Two recent arguments about the impact of the rising anti-Islam trend in the U.S. -- from the Stupid!Storm around the Manhattan mosque to the lunacy of "national burn a Quran day" -- on the Arab world strike me as not quite right. Last week, Bill Kristol cited the translation of a column by Saudi TV station al-Arabiya director Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed downplaying the relevance of the mosque as evidence that the argument should be over. Meanwhile, several recent articles claim that the mosque had become the #1 topic of discussion on jihadist forums. Both are wrong, in different ways. Most Arab columnists agree with the argument that the anti-mosque movement will badly harm Arab and Muslim views of the United States, contra Rashed, but there isn't as much active discussion of it in the forums as you'd expect. That isn't a reason to relax, though. The impact is likely to be felt not so much on extremists, whose views about America are rather fixed, but on the vast middle ground, the Arab and Muslim mainstream which both the Bush and Obama administrations have recognized as crucial both for defeating al-Qaeda and for achieving broad American national interests. And that mainstream, not the extremists themselves, is where our attention needs to be focused.
A closer look at Arab mainstream media and jihadist forum debates shows what I mean. A scan of the major op-ed pages quickly reveals that Rashed is very much a minority voice in the unfolding Arab debate. Rashed's column caught the attention of anti-mosque activists such as Kristol, because it suited their needs. But if Kristol really wants Americans to take their cues from Arab columnists, here's a more representative sample of commentary over the last few days:
- Jamil al-Nimri, a Jordanian liberal writing for al-Ghad, who writes that the backlash against the mosque has unleashed a wave of bigotry and hate, at the expense of the intended message of an enlightened and tolerant Islam.
- Mohammed al-Hammadi, an Emirati writer for al-Ittihad, who describes the mosque as a moment for America to choose whether it truly believes in freedom.
- Abd al-Haq Azouzi, a Moroccan writing for al-Ittihad, who reverses the familiar question to ask "why do they hate us?," and warns that those cynically manufacturing the issue for political benefit are unleashing an uncontrollable wave of hatred.
- Abdullah al-Shayji, a Kuwaiti writing for al-Ittihad, who sees the mosque battle as a fundamental test of the place of Muslims in America and fears rising Islamophobia.
- Ragheda Dergham, writing in al-Hayat, warns that the campaign against the mosque threatens Islamic moderation.
- Manar al-Shourbji, in Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm, reflects that the campaign against the mosque demonstrates that the good intentions of the mosque's founders were not enough in the face of rising anti-Islam extremism in America.
And this is just from the last few days. The most positive spin on the mosque crisis is actually that it's all politics. A number of columnists argue that it is just Republicans cynically using the Islam issue to hurt Obama and help their re-election campaign. But even those columnists generally go on to worry that such forces, once unleashed, are hard to control. Fortunately, the courageous remarks of figures such as Michael Bloomberg have also received prominent coverage --- something which gives moderate figures something to grasp onto when arguing against the extremists. And that's what they need, both for their own sake and for ours.
Meanwhile, the mosque has barely registered on the major jihadist forums which I frequent -- yesterday, on the leading al-Shamoukh forum, it was not mentioned in the headline of a single one of the first ten pages of posts (more than 500 in all). There have been a few threads, as Evan Kohlmann has claimed, but it's a fairly minor theme within the forum debates ("Burn a Quran Day" has actually had more traction than the NY mosque thus far, actually). Certainly no triumphalism about how they'll soon have a monument to victory, as you hear so often out there on the American lunatic fringe. I have no doubt that al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists will eventually use the anti-mosque movement in their propaganda, since it so perfectly fits their narrative of a West at war with Islam --- the very narrative which both the Bush administration and the Obama administration worked so hard to combat over the last few years. I suspect that the participants in the forums aren't talking about it much is that it simply confirms what they already believe about America. They'll use it, but don't see much to argue about.
That's the opposite of the Arab mainstream, which is vigorously arguing about what it means for the future of America's relationship with Muslims --- both in America and in the world. Where the anti-mosque movement and escalating anti-Islam rhetoric is really resonating is with the Arab mainstream --- that vast middle ground which had hoped that the election of Barack Obama would mark a real change from the Bush administration but have grown increasingly disappointed. The mosque issue has been covered heavily on Arab satellite TV stations such as al-Jazeera, and the images of angry Americans chanting slogans and waving signs against Islam have resonated much like the images of angry Arabs burning American flags and denouncing U.S. policy did with American viewers after 9/11. The recent public opinion surveys showing widespread hostility towards Islam among Americans have also gotten a lot of attention.
It all contributes to the ongoing deterioriation of their residual hope in Obama's ability to bring about meaningful change. It's confirming the worst fears of too many mainstream Arabs and Muslims, and thus providing fodder for the extremists who hope to exploit that atmosphere. It's become a cliche to say so, but it's true: by fueling the narrative of a clash of civilizations and an inevitable war between Islam and the West, this unfortunate trend is empowering extremists on all sides and weakening moderates. That's exactly the dynamic which I warned about here and in my recent Foreign Affairs article, and it's one which counter-terrorism professionals and public diplomacy specialists alike understand needs to be broken before it's too late.