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.
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.