On 11 September 2001, fewer than two dozen suicidal men, armed with nothing more lethal than box cutters, brought the world’s hyper power to its knees and abruptly ended the unipolar moment. Nine years later, small numbers of extremists still have the ability to terrorize the US and to tear as under its unity of purpose. There is, however, one key difference: Unlike the 9/11 attackers, the groups—of different hues—now threatening the US are all Americans.
Leading the pack is Terry Jones, the fringe Christian preacher in Florida who threatened to observe the ninth anniversary of that terrible Tuesday as “Burn the Quran Day”. What is particularly troubling is that the reverend—whose congregation, as the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, wryly noted, is smaller than the gathering of the press at any briefing—could manage to hold the entire nation hostage to his antics and further rattle the war-weary Obama administration. While the preacher was eventually convinced not to break US laws and blatantly abuse the constitution, he did achieve his 15 minutes of notoriety thanks to which he became the favourite pin-up for recruiters of the extremist cause. His stunt showed just how fragile religious tolerance has become in the US.
Jones’ self-serving antics and the related media circus coincided with the raging controversy over the decision to build Cordoba House—a multi-faith community centre—near Ground Zero in New York. The project’s leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, considered as the poster boy for moderate Islam (the US state department sponsored him for a speaking tour in West Asia to improve relations with the Muslim world), would do any secular nation proud. But that pride is missing in the US, and Rauf became the target of loathing. Though Cordoba House has received unwavering support from the Jewish mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, it has received only lukewarm backing from President Obama.
Both episodes highlight the growing alienation between some Islamic sects and other faiths in the US, and underline the principal findings of the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center report released this month, Assessing the Terrorist Threat. Written by Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, two respected US experts on terrorism, the conclusions of the report are chilling. In 2009, “at least 43 US citizens or residents aligned with Sunni militant groups or their ideology were charged or convicted of terrorism crimes in the US or elsewhere, the highest number in any year since 9/11”. These include Shirwa Ahmed from Minneapolis, probably the first US suicide bomber; Major Nidal Hasan, a psychiatrist who gunned down 13 people in Texas; Najibullah Zazi, educated in Queens, who planned suicide attacks on the New York subway; and Faisal Shahzad, MBA graduate and failed Times Square bomber.
Even as the alienation grows, the efforts of the current administration to bridge the gap between Muslims (especially those susceptible to radicalization) and other faiths is found to be wanting. Porochista Khakpour, an Iranian author who became a naturalized US citizen just after 9/11, wondered plaintively in The New York Times this month: “Was the Bush era better for U.S. Muslims?” While the Obama administration has been equally attentive to this concern (as their handling of the Jones crisis reflected), there is nonetheless an impression (indicative in their hesitant response to the Cordoba House controversy) that Democrats are being back-footed on this issue.
Against this backdrop, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s big speech at the Council on Foreign Relations this month—where she emphasized the “essential” US global leadership against the war on terror—rings hollow. While the speech claims that the US is the natural choice when “old adversaries need an honest broker or fundamental freedoms need a champion”, it makes no mention of the inability of Washington to play a similar leadership role in addressing the increasing alienation domestically and the rising threat from home-grown terrorism. If the US is to succeed in tackling global terrorism, let alone play a leadership role, it will have to reinforce its secular credentials and address the causes and consequences of the enemy within.
W Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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