The Mosque near ground zero should be built, but not merely on account of the lofty principles about religious freedom articulated by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In fact, when it comes to Islam, Americans have good reason to be suspicious of high-minded pronouncements by their leaders. A more compelling argument for building the mosque is to get beyond the current controversy, because it empowers the most opportunistic elements in the Muslim community and fosters an us-versus-them mentality that stalls a much-needed debate among Muslims about their place in American society.
Time and again, our political leaders have demonstrated an unsettling eagerness to put a positive gloss on troubling scenarios involving violent jihadists. After the failed Times Square bombing by self-proclaimed "Muslim soldier" Faisal Shahzad in May, Bloomberg declared: "So far, there is no evidence that any of this has anything to do with one of the recognized terrorist organizations." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano characterized the incident as "a one-off" event. Attorney General Eric Holder virtually refused to associate the plot with "radical Islam."
Reasonable people have good grounds to be distrustful of Muslim leaders and of the proposed prayer space. US mosques have often been battlegrounds between contending Muslim factions. A typical scenario is for one group to go to the trouble and expense of building a mosque, only to have it taken over by some other group. Although extremists have sometimes prevailed in this way, terrorists and would-be terrorists have typically operated outside mosques — either because they chose to or because they were forced out by fellow Muslims.
To be sure, such expulsions illustrate a reassuring process of self-policing by Muslim Americans, especially since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet this coexists with a striking degree of evasion and self-delusion, typified by the claim, frequently made by Muslims, that "religion had nothing to do with 9/11," or the plaintive query "why didn't anyone ask about the religion of the Unabomber?"
More disturbing is the lack of candor on the part of many Muslim leaders about their past associations. As federal prosecutors established in the recent Holy Land Foundation trial, many leaders have had ties to Hamas and to the Muslim Brotherhood. To be fair, the implications of such ties may not be as dire as anti-Muslim zealots suggest. The Muslim Brotherhood is, after all, an encompassing movement in the Arab world, with divergent tendencies responsive to the different contexts in which adherents operate.
Nevertheless, such concerns need to be addressed. But far from compelling Muslim leaders to do so, controversies like this one allow them to change the subject. And the accompanying media storms also help such leaders to overcome daunting obstacles to mobilizing their co-religionists. An overlooked irony about the proposed mosque is that as many as 80 percent of Muslims in the United States lack a regular relationship with any mosque. Of these, some probably reject Islam and organized religion altogether. A larger number likely continue to identify with Islam but do not seriously observe its tenets. In addition to the usual reasons why immigrants do not get involved in civic or political affairs, such "unmosqued" Muslims are particularly difficult for leaders to communicate with and mobilize.
Adding to the difficulty is the diversity of Muslims in the United States. Not only are they divided among Sunni, Shia, and Sufi, they are separated by language and ethnic ties to their homelands. There is also a gulf between immigrant Muslims and their African-American brothers and sisters, who are themselves riven into many different sects. Finally, there are differences among traditionalists, fundamentalists, and Islamists.
In light of such fault lines and obstacles, controversies and attacks from non-Muslims afford leaders a singular opportunity to unify and mobilize their people, as Muslims. But the more the frame becomes Muslims versus non-Muslims, the more responsible leaders get pushed aside by the most opportunistic purveyors of victim politics.
This is the real tragedy of disputes like the present one. For the critical debate that must proceed is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but among Muslims themselves.
To facilitate this process, the rest of us should follow Bloomberg's imperfect example, support the building of the mosque near ground zero, maintain our vigilance against our true enemies in the Muslim world, and encourage Muslims here to get on with the critical business of coming to terms not only with their rights but also with their responsibilities as citizens.
Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
This article originally ran in The Boston Globe on August 19, 2010. Posted here with permission.