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Would Cancellation of Quran-Burning Event Prevent Further Fallout?

September 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Florida pastor who caused a global uproar over plans to burn Qurans on the 9/11 anniversary suspended those plans and is seeking a deal to move a planned Islamic center in New York. Ray Suarez gets two takes on Thursday's developments with counter-terrorism experts Mohammed Hafez and Brian Fishman.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on this story, we’re joined by Mohammed Hafez, an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. Both have written extensively on Islamic movements.

Professor Hafez, Pastor Jones has stepped back from International Burn a Koran Day. Does that announcement come in enough time to forestall what might have been bad effects?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ, associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School: Well, it may have. But I think it has cast a pall on Muslim celebrations of Eid al-Fitr, which is about to take place tomorrow. But my concern is, is that this episode may have passed, but others are now going to seek to emulate what the pastor has proposed to do, largely to garner national media attention, as well as attention of the president and those in high command.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Fishman, what do you think? Is the damage already done?

BRIAN FISHMAN, counterterrorism research fellow, New America Foundation: Well, I think — I think that forestalling and preventing the images of burning Korans is useful and will prevent some of the radicalization that might occur.

It certainly means that al-Qaida can’t use those images in its propaganda. But I think it’s worth noting here that, sometimes, perception is more important than reality, especially for jihadi and al-Qaida recruiters. And they’re going to go out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they argue, even if there are no Korans burned, that they argue — that they argue that they were burned, and so that we will see some radicalization, despite the fact that this may not go forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, do you agree, that, even in the absence of burning Korans, this incident can be a tool in that — in somebody’s hands?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: I certainly would agree with what Brian has said. And what we have to remember is this that this episode is taking place in the context of a broader vitriolic discourse around Muslims and Muslim faith, or Islamic faith. We have to remember that this is taking place in the context of people questioning whether an Islamic center should be built in Lower Manhattan, and accusations that President Obama is a Muslim, and, presumably, that is a bad thing.

And so the damage in some ways has already been done. And, yes, the radical extremists will exploit this to promote their narrative that there is a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and that the West is out there to humiliate Muslims.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, Professor, the president of the United States, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, religious leaders from many different faiths in the United States have denounced this activity in advance of it happening.

Is that not heard at all in those same circles that you’re talking about being radicalized by the argument over burning the Koran?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, I think those messages are very important, and I commend the president and all the individuals that have stepped forward, including General Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for making these very important announcements.

The challenge that we have, though, is that there is a broader context to this episode or what was proposed to take place, and that is increasing American distrust of Muslims. There’s suspicion being cast on the Islamic identity, and this despite the fact that Muslims, generally speaking, have been very loyal to America.

Most of those who attacked us on 9/11 or before that have come from outside of the Islamic communities in the United States. And so that’s where I think is the real danger, is that that broader discourse around this episode is tearing asunder Islamic Muslim-American relations in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Fishman, more on that very outspoken reaction from American leadership.

BRIAN FISHMAN: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that indicate to you, the fact that this wasn’t done through back channels, that it was done publicly and internationally, that they were getting a lot of feedback about threats around the world?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Yes, it does. This had to be done, in my view. And I understand there is an argument out there that says the president and General Petraeus and a slew of domestic political leaders shouldn’t have raised the profile of this issue.

But, frankly, the first time that I became aware that there was a pastor that planned to burn Korans in Florida was on a jihadi Web site more than a month ago, when there was sort of a short news article from a British newspaper that had mentioned this, and it was being discussed by the jihadis.

And already then, more than a month ago, there were posters on these Web sites saying, you know what? We need do something. This is a big deal. This changes the way I look at things.

And, so, I think that it’s very important for our political leaders and our civic leaders to come out, and not only denounce efforts like this one in Florida, but really raise the standard of debate. We don’t talk about the issues of sort of Muslims in America and the issues of terrorism — the larger issues of terrorism in a very sophisticated way. Oftentimes, these are politicized. The rhetoric that is used is really, really rancorous. And we need to do a better job.

Those political leaders needs — need to raise the standard, so that when somebody like this pastor in Florida does something crazy, it stands out even more.

RAY SUAREZ: As we reported earlier — and before we go — the issue of building an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan has now been joined to this question of burning Korans in Florida.

Professor, were they already joined in — in the opinions of viewers outside America in the Muslim world?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, they were joined, but not in the way that the pastor is suggesting that they be linked.

The fact is, we have a person like Sarah Palin and Boehner who came on TV and said that the — you know, portraying Muslims as being extremists for seeking to build an Islamic center, one to promote cultural understanding and bridging interfaith communities.

By linking those issues, in many ways, they have taken what is bad and what is good and linked it together. And I think that is really unfortunate.

What we have here are two separate, entirely two separate discussions that need to take place, one an Islamic center that is seeking to promote cultural understanding, and one that is simply seeking to promote and provoke hatred and distrust and, indeed, violence between communities.

RAY SUAREZ: For the record, Governor Palin denounced the attempts to burn Korans in Florida. And, for the record, just before we went on the air this evening, the director of the cultural center in Lower Manhattan that’s seeking to be built denied that there was any deal to move the center, and the developer who owns the land said there was no deal as well, though Pastor Jones says he is flying to New York for further consultations.

Gentlemen, thank you very much.

BRIAN FISHMAN: Thank you.