Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but according to an old (or possibly reinvented) Norse myth JFK used to tell, a witch promised Odin the secret of victory, at the price of his right eye. The god promptly plucked out his eye, laid it on the table, and demanded the secret.
Whereupon the witch cackled, “Watch with both eyes.”
Which brings us to Cordoba House.
Daniel Drezner, who (naturally) thinks that Cordoba House should be built, dislikes the argumentum al Qaedam, even in a good cause. Surely he’s right that the current threat from al Qaeda isn’t big enough to force us to do something we really don’t want to do on other grounds, or conversely to abstain from something we want to do.
But if we broaden out from al Qaeda, extremist Islam – as represented by the Taliban, big parts of the Pakistani intelligence service ISI, the government of Iran, several factions in Iraq, Hezbollah, Hamas, and large segments of public and elite opinion throughout the Islamic world – remains a threat, on several levels, and could remain a threat for a long time. The optimists are learning Mandarin and the pessimists are learning Arabic. So if it’s true that X would weaken Islamic extremism, that’s an argument for doing X. Not a conclusive argument, but an argument that deserves some weight..
And Kevin Drum is surely right to say that, on every level, stopping Cordoba House would be an anti-terrorist minus, while allowing it to be built – showing that American Muslims are fully American, and as welcome to build a community center and worship space as anyone else, wherever they want to build it – would be an anti-terrorist plus. Indeed, the very controversy is bad for national security, because it tells Muslims here and abroad that the United States is not, in fact, fully hospitable to them and their religion.
But (I say this with great respect) it seems to me that these two very smart folks are both missing the point.
If the forces of intolerance stop Cordoba House, the terrorists will have “won” in the only sense that such a fundamentally weak movement based in such basically backward places could possibly “win” against the West. They will have won – only a partial victory, but a victory all the same – by inducing us to act like them.
This isn’t, after all, fundamentally a geographic or ethnic struggle, or even a religious one. It’s a struggle between the values of small-l liberalism and the Enlightenment – rational inquiry, religious tolerance, ethnic and gender equality, social mobility, elections, free speech, free press, individual rights – against the values of dogmatism, ignorance, intolerance, nationalism (in Orwell’s sense that includes ethnic and sectarian triumphalism), inherited status, the subordination of women, hierarchy, tyranny, and the dominance of the family, the village, the clergy, and the state over the individual. The question that should be asked of the American Wahhabis – the people who think, as Newt Gingrich does, that we should copy our policy toward religious diversity from Saudi Arabia – is an old question, but no less valid for it: “Which side are you on?”