Shadow Government

Stop talking about the mosque; start doing something to help Pakistan

I have held off commenting on the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, in part because it seemed to be primarily a domestic political issue but mainly because I was dismayed by the hyperbole, demagoguery, and dishonest argumentation I found — and, sadly, there are plenty of culprits on both sides of the debate. Some of the ...

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I have held off commenting on the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, in part because it seemed to be primarily a domestic political issue but mainly because I was dismayed by the hyperbole, demagoguery, and dishonest argumentation I found — and, sadly, there are plenty of culprits on both sides of the debate. Some of the debate has been principled, nuanced, and careful, but not enough of it has and like an email flame war, the rhetoric has escalated even as the actual underlying points of dispute have narrowed.

However, one underappreciated point of consensus in the debate has prompted me to weigh in. Both sides of the debate appear to agree on one narrow claim: that the Ground Zero mosque is an important issue, symbolic or otherwise, in the ideological struggle in which the war on terror is embedded — what Bush administration insiders referred to as the war of ideas.

I think it is certainly relevant to the war of ideas. Al Qaeda has sought to turn a broad civil war within the Muslim world into a war between Islam and the infidels (everyone else). If al Qaeda ever succeeded in that aim, our prospects for success would dim considerably. In fact, as President Bush and his advisors made clear within hours of the 9/11 attacks, and as leaders from both parties have emphasized repeatedly ever since — and as most Americans have accepted to a remarkable degree — the United States has not viewed the war on terror as a war against Islam. On the contrary, Americans have expended considerable blood and treasure to help protect Muslim victims of al Qaeda and other like-minded terrorist groups. And American leaders have sought, wherever possible, to reach out to the Muslim world and highlight America’s long tradition of religious freedom and unrivaled record as a society that welcomes and integrates immigrants from all walks of life.

President Obama has made this particular aspect of the ideological struggle a personal priority of his and he deserves some credit for doing so.

Yet, all of the focus on the Ground Zero mosque controversy may now be having the ironic effect of distracting us from a much more important and much more urgent issue in that ideological struggle: the vast humanitarian crisis caused by the floods in Pakistan. The human toll is staggering, and that alone ought to be enough to prompt an outpouring of generosity from the American people.

But if you are not moved by the human suffering, perhaps the national-security concerns will prompt you into action. Pakistan is at the epicenter of the war on terror, and it is hard to see how that larger struggle will turn out well if the Pakistani state collapses and the society plunges into anarchy. The country was already teetering on the edge with a bankrupt economy, severe food and water problems, and an ongoing insurgency in Balochistan. And, by the way, al Qaeda and other terrorist networks are primarily in Pakistan, not Afghanistan — indeed, several of the recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States have originated from or had links to groups in Pakistan. Oh, and Pakistan has a sizable nuclear arsenal.

The stakes in Pakistan are exceptionally high and the international response thus far has been inadequate. The United States has done better than most, but we could do more. The most successful things the Bush administration ever did in the war of ideas were the rapid and substantial responses to the Asian tsunami of 2004/2005 and the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. More than anything, our actions confounded critics in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) and thwarted al Qaeda’s goal of fostering a war between Islam and the West.

The current Pakistan crisis dwarfs both of those prior disasters, but the international response, beginning with ours, has not yet been commensurate. There are many reasons for that, but maybe one of those reasons is our national preoccupation with the mosque debate.

Perhaps it is time for our national attention to pivot from the mosque controversy on to the far more serious Pakistan crisis. Perhaps it is time for all of those political leaders and pundits who have scored points on their partisan enemies on this issue to take a pause, make a donation to the International Red Cross, and urge others to do the same.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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