As a former intelligence officer who has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf States, I've been watching the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque with growing alarm. Al Qaeda's goal for the 9/11 attacks was not only to destroy the American economy, but also to polarize Muslims and non-Muslims. Bin Laden understood that if Americans could be made to fear and despise Arabs, a wave of Muslim-bashing would ensue in this country which would ultimately reinforce Muslims' belief that the "Zionist-Crusader" coalition was accelerating its long-held goal of destroying Islam. This belief would make Muslims set aside what Bin Laden's 1998 Fatwa called "minor differences" among themselves and unite in a holy war against US-Israeli aggression.
My many conversations with Muslims in the Middle East have convinced me that Al Qaeda's 9/11 strategy is working. Even non-violent Muslims, who constitute the vast majority of adherents to the faith, suspect that, at its core, America hates Islam as much as it hates Al Qaeda. The moderate Muslims I know believe that equating Al Qaeda to Islam makes no more sense than equating the Ku Klux Klan with Christianity; yet the majority of Americans persist in lumping the two together. Widespread opposition in America to the Ground Zero mosque simply reinforces the suspicion in the Islamic world that America 's anger at 9/11 extends far beyond the Muslims who carried out the act to Muslims everywhere.
I am a lifelong Republican and former Bush administration official. I do not support all of Obama's policies. But I believe that our President is spot-on with his support for the Ground Zero Mosque. In a rare display of long range vision, leadership and yes, political courage, Obama is advocating that America do what is right, not what is popular with the voters. Even members of the President's own party, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, do not seem to understand the symbolic importance to the Islamic world of locating a Mosque at Ground Zero. This gesture would send an unambiguous message that America clearly understands the difference between Al Qaeda and Islam, and that we do not hate all Muslims.
But the majority of Americans who oppose the Mosque are playing into Al Qaeda's hands by reinforcing the idea that American's do hate Islam. This groundswell of sentiment, in effect, is a second 9/11 that we have inflicted upon ourselves out of ignorance of the way the Islamic world views us.
Of special importance is the way that American Muslims perceive the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. According to a 2007 NYPD report, Radicalization in the West:
The Homegrown Threat, the most likely perpetrators of future terrorist attacks in the US will be American Muslims who have become alienated and subsequently radicalized to embrace violence. There is strong evidence that widespread opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque has produced exactly the type of alienation that the NYPD described in their report. Abdul Cader Asmal, writing about the mosque controversy in The American Muslim, observed. "It should also have been a wake-up call for the silent masses of Muslims, Americans by birth or choice, from their torpor...For the anti-Muslim forces are well organized, with deep pockets and are totally unscrupulous."
Obama, in voicing support for the Mosque project, understands the peril of further alienating non-violent Muslims, especially inside America. Our president also grasps what many of us apparently do not: in the words of New Yorker columnist Lawrence Wright, "Al Qaeda cannot destroy America. Only we can do that."
Dr. Eric Haseltine is former Chief Technology officer and Associate Director of National Intelligence in the Bush administration, and author of Long Fuse, Big Bang: Achieving Long Term Success Through Daily Victories (Hyperion, July 2010)