Today German authorities have shut down the Taiba mosque, formerly known as the Al Quds mosque, in Hamburg. What took them so long? Hamburg continues to be known as a center of radical Islamists, with authorities estimating that about forty-five supporters of jihad were active in the mosque. Meanwhile, Indonesia arrested the radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who shouted that “the United States is behind this!” And the Taliban, it seems, are back in northern Afghanistan.
These events, which are all taking place abroad, come at a ticklish moment for Americans who are currently debating the construction of a mosque near ground zero, not to mention elsewhere. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and the Anti-Defamation League came out against the mosque, while CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria returned a Hubert Humphrey award to protest the ADL’s stance. Protests have erupted across the country as well. The New York Times reports that in California, Tennessee and Wisconsin, angry locals are denouncing the idea of erecting mosques in their neighborhoods. The idea seems to be that Islam isn’t viewed as a religion, deserving of traditional rights, but a militant ideology, on the order of Communism, that seeks to impose its own law in the form of the sharia. Diana Serafin, a Tea Party follower and grandmother living near San Diego, explained to the Times: “As a mother and a grandmother, I worry,” Ms. Serafin said. “I learned that in 20 years with the rate of the birth population, we will be overtaken by Islam, and their goal is to get people in Congress and the Supreme Court to see that Shariah is implemented. My children and grandchildren will have to live under that. I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion,” she stated, “But Islam is not about a religion. It’s a political government, and it’s 100 percent against our Constitution.”
Serafin may not know better, but Palin, or at least Gingrich, should. Demonizing Islam is a recipe for disaster. Palin and Gingrich are playing with fire when they come out against the mosque in New York. The blunt fact is that any religion can be demonized as militant. Most of them continue to have their strident factions—witness some of the zealots in Israel, who bear no small resemblance to their fanatical Arab opponents. But stymieing the construction of mosques is a surefire way to create a Muslim problem in America. Germany, Indonesia and other countries have a radical Islam problem. It’s not clear that America does. But actions such as taunting Muslims and trying to deny them their basic constitutional rights could help create one. A Duke University/University of North Carolina study indicates that mosques actually help to defang radical Islam by showing younger adherents that a path outside radicalism exists.
The truth is that the tempest over the mosques may be an expression of larger American anxieties. America has a split personality when it comes to the Middle East. On the one hand, it’s addicted to oil. On the other hand, it views Islam with apprehension. The Obama administration’s decision to sell eighty-four F-15 fighter jets (absent some advanced weaponry, to allay Israeli apprehensions) to Saudi Arabia is a reminder of how closely America’s fortunes are tied to the very country that exported most of the 9/11 hijackers in the first place. Essentially, the $30 billion that the Saudis will pay for the planes is American money originally sent over to pay for oil as well as help create some jobs for Boeing. Military weapons seem to be one of the few exports that America can still produce as the trade deficit remains over $40 billion a month.
The dustup over the idea of more mosques being built in America—almost two thousand exist—testifies more to American anxieties about a fading superpower than about rational fears. Germany is selectively closing a radical mosque, not targeting Muslims en masse—something that, in any case, it could hardly do, given its own history not to mention the huge number of peaceful Turks living within its borders.
The biggest threat to America isn’t from radical Islam. It faces far greater problems, both at home and abroad. So far, there are few signs that America is grappling with them. Or that it even wants to.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.