Inflaming an already heated debate, the imam behind the proposed Ground Zero Mosque claimed in a CNN interview Wednesday that moving the site of his project would be a victory for “the radicals.” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s statement was steeped in irony, though, as the dangerous narrative he predicts would result from moving the mosque—that “Islam is under attack” from the U.S.—is precisely the story line he has put forth himself multiple times since Sept. 11, 2001.
What should trouble all Americans is that those comments echo the most powerful motivation for young Muslims who embrace terrorism.
Should Rauf succeed in erecting a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero, it is at least plausible that he will use that pedestal to promote the same paranoid delusions of Islamic victimization—albeit in softer tones—that no doubt inspired most of the very terrorists whose legacy he says he wishes to fight.
He could face pressure from financial backers to be more anti-American—behind closed doors, of course—if he cannot raise much of the projected $100 million from inside the United States. His likeliest funding sources are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—the two principal funders in the 1990s of the Taliban.
While there is no evidence to suggest he has ever explicitly encouraged violence, he has uttered potentially more insidious rhetoric. Rauf in 2005 reportedly told a largely Islamic audience in Australia that the United States had more Muslim blood on its hands than “al Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims.”
His defenders note that the imam was referring to the United Nations-approved sanctions levied against the Saddam Hussein regime following the first Gulf War. This actually puts his argument directly in line with the rationales articulated by the likes of shoe bomber Richard Reid, East Africa embassies bomber Mohammed Al-Owhali, and Osama bin Laden - all of whom cited the Iraqi sanctions as a primary justification for attacking the United States.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Rauf could have been a beacon shining light to expose the Big Lie that the United States is the enemy of the Islamic world. Instead, he told “60 Minutes” that U.S. foreign policy was “an accessory to the crime.”
Although it is undoubtedly true that the United States made many grave mistakes—most pointedly, the decision not to oppose actively Taliban rule in the late 1990s—Rauf had to know that the best path to combat terrorism would have been for him to squarely attack the false narrative of Islamic victimization.
So even as he officially condemned the Sept. 11 attacks, his words could easily have been seen as implying that the 19 terrorists were nonetheless acting in self-defense for the broader Muslim world.
While it would be nice to grant him the benefit of the doubt, such gray area is likely not accidental from a man who this summer refused to call Hamas a terrorist organization.
Openly violent rhetoric is understandably of great concern to law enforcement and news editors, but such statements arguably are not as dangerous as those that plant the seeds that could eventually lead a young Muslim to believe that his action is required in order to defend Islam from the United States.
Calls to arms merely command someone to find and use a gun. Convincing someone with a strong, familial kinship to his co-religionists that his fellow Muslims are being unjustly slaughtered, however, instills in the listener a desire to find his own gun and a reason to use it.
In the case of Fort Hood shooting suspect Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan last year, it appears that authorities ignored the glaring warning signs they discovered long before his alleged rampage because he didn't explicitly spell out plans to commit violence.
But had those officials known what actually inspires young Muslims to become jihadists, they instantly would have recognized Maj. Hasan as a security threat and, hopefully, taken pre-emptive action.
Aside from exchanging e-mails with an al Qaeda-linked cleric, Maj. Hasan heaped praised in an Internet posting on suicide bombers who “save Muslims” by killing soldiers—the very people among whom he lived and worked. Despite the official Department of Defense whitewash that purged mention of his Islamic motivations, Maj. Hasan surely went on his alleged rampage in order to “save Muslims” from U.S. attack.
Rauf was right about one thing in his CNN interview. He said, “Our national security now hinges on how we negotiate this.”
Giving Rauf the platform to peddle tall tales of Islamic victimization with the powerful symbolic background of Ground Zero could easily result in some number of young Muslims sympathizing with the heinous attacks.
How much of a stretch would it really be to imagine a few of his followers going one step further by becoming inspired to strike an even mightier blow against the United States?