There is no shortage of commentary about the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which is neither at Ground Zero nor exactly just a mosque, so I will keep this short and try to contribute an original perspective. I am not going to address what I think about the morality, wisdom, and legality of the decision to build this center in close proximity to the site of the World Trade Center. We have all had enough of that. I only focus on the strategic angle.
To be clear at the outset, I do not think the Cordoba Initiative is Islamist-inclined. However, as a friend of mine, who is good at assessing these things, recently noted in an email to me:
My own view…is that the Cordoba guys are not Islamists. At least not in a meaningful way. Certainly, Islamists will seize it and do the whole, “Look at those American crusaders persecuting us Muslims.”
Islamic radicals are seizing on protests against a planned Islamic community center near Manhattan’s Ground Zero and anti-Muslim rhetoric elsewhere as a propaganda opportunity and are stepping up anti-U.S. chatter and threats on their websites.
One jihadist site vowed to conduct suicide bombings in Florida to avenge a threatened Koran burning, while others predicted an increase in terrorist recruits as a result of such actions.
“By Allah, the wars are heated and you Americans are the ones who…enflamed it,” says one such posting. “By Allah you will be the first to taste its flames.”
As I have maintained before on this blog, the Islamist movement represents a late modern global insurgency of sorts. A standard tactic and technique of insurgency is to provoke the counter-insurgent into reacting disproportionately in such a way that helps to mobilize the insurgent’s constituency against the counter-insurgent.
The “Irgun Strategy” is one term that has been ascribed to this technique, as the Jewish terrorist organization of the same name designed its attacks during the Mandate Period to provoke the British into implementing repressive measures against the entire Jewish population. But the Irgun were not the first to invent it, nor were they the last to use it. The Taliban continue to use it to great effect in Afghanistan by firing upon Coalition Forces from civilian homes, hoping to draw artillery fire or air strikes on civilians for a propaganda coup. This was the logic behind General Stanley McChrystal’s mandate to avoid air strikes under these circumstances. And it is no small irony that Israel has faced enemies that have used the “Irgun Strategy” – Hizballah, Hamas, and their fedayeen predecessors (although the Israeli defense establishment has not shifted their strategy and operations accordingly…a topic for another post).
The uproar (there are some particularly grotesque examples from Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, but I think they are just trying to keep up with their constituencies) over the Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Center is the latest and most spectacular demonstration that we fail to understand the Islamist Movement’s Irgun Strategy.
Western Islamist groups consistently engage in provocative behaviour designed to draw out the worst elements of the Western polities and thus simplify an element of mobilization that social movement scholars refer to as boundary activation – activities that contribute toward the increasing saliency of inter-group differences, whether they are economic, social, religious, racial, ethnic, or otherwise. Boundary activation draws out the “us vs. them” dynamic that often relies on a narrative of exclusion or discrimination that feeds a sense of vicitimization.
This creates and solidifies in-group cohesion and loyalty and strengthens out-group hatred and distrust. In this case, Islamist activists will be able to use this episode to argue – this time, with some credible evidence – that Muslims cannot ever be truly part of America and cannot enjoy the same rights as other Americans. The narrative continues that America leads the West in a war against Islam, in which Israel is a proxy (or America is a proxy of Israel, depending on which version you prefer). This all creates what some have called an oppositional consciousness among many Muslim youth with interactive exposure to narrative of Islamist activists. This is an empowering mental state that prepares members of a group to act to undermine, reform, or overthrow an incumbent system. In other words, it is a mental state that prepares members of a group for insurgency.
Long story short: the vitriol over the Cordoba Initiative makes it easier for the bad guys to recruit worldwide.
Thus we see figures like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and the grotesque Pamela Geller willingly serving as propaganda tools for the Islamist movement and serving the Islamist strategy. So I turn their obscene fear-mongering and disingenuous flag-waving back at them (only slightly tongue-in-cheek):
Ms. Palin and Dr. Gingrich – stop helping al Qaeda.
As I mentioned at the beginning, whether or not the Cordoba Initiative project is an intentional provocation is another matter. There has been much written about the group and I won’t repeat it here. While Imam Rauf has said some offensive things, the evidence that he and his organization are Islamist-inclined is thin. Regardless, it serves the larger Islamist strategy and shows Western Islamist groups the power of creating such a divisive fuss during an American election year. This makes further provocations inevitable. Let us hope we will react with more sense next time.
A more clever response would have been to warmly welcome the Cordoba Initiative to New York, but politely and firmly request that they sign on to an international campaign to stop the persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan and elsewhere or to co-sponsor the construction of a Christian church and a synagogue in a Muslim country (Saudi Arabia would be asking too much – it would be bombed by someone anyway). Or perhaps just to build Christian and Jewish prayer rooms in the Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Center. Even if they were to say “no thank you,” that would still be a strategic win for the United States, if done right.