On Sunday, Frank Rich posted a column on the Park 51 controversy in which he argued “The prime movers in the campaign against the ground zero mosque’ just happen to be among the last cheerleaders for America’s nine-year war in Afghanistan”:
The wrecking ball they’re wielding is not merely pounding Park51, as the project is known, but is demolishing America’s already frail support for that war, which is dedicated to nation-building in a nation whose most conspicuous asset besides opium is actual mosques.
So virulent is the Islamophobic hysteria of the neocon and Fox News right — abetted by the useful idiocy of the Anti-Defamation League, Harry Reid and other cowed Democrats — that it has also rendered Gen. David Petraeus’s last-ditch counterinsurgency strategy for fighting the war inoperative. How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?
While I think Rich is correct to note the bigotry and cynicism that underlies the most virulent opposition to Park 51, and the cowardice that underlies most of the rest of it, I think we should be careful not suggest that, by engaging in free speech, however ugly and false that speech may be, critics of Park 51 are undermining the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, or national security more broadly.
We saw similar arguments leveled against critics of the Iraq war — first that, by questioning the case for war, they were “objectively pro-Saddam,” and later that, by continuing to criticize the war as it went worse and worse, they were emboldening insurgents.
But the idea that success or failure in Afghanistan will be determined by whatever stupid things Newt Gingrich or Glenn Beck say about Muslims is just daft, just as was the idea that those who criticized the Iraq war bear responsibility for the Bush administration’s disastrous incompetence.
None of this is to say that the controversy over Park 51 has no bearing on U.S. national security, I think it clearly does. Just as apartheid in the American South provided our Cold War adversaries with fodder for their anti-American propaganda, so it’s becoming clear that the anti-Muslim hysteria emanating from the anti-Park 51 protests is, as the New York Times reported, “playing into the hands of extremists by bolstering their claims that the United States is hostile to Islam.”
Does the Park 51 controversy make achieving the U.S.’s goals vis a vis the “Muslim world” more difficult? It may. The appropriate response to this, however, is not to attempt to chill speech by claiming it helps our enemies, but to engage in the debate more vigorously and honestly in order to ensure that American values of tolerance and religious freedom aren’t cast aside, either as a sop to bigotry or to political expediency, and let that be the rejoinder to our enemies’ propaganda.