The furor over the Islamic center variously called the Ground Zero mosque, Cordoba House and Park 51 has large implications for the future of Islam in the US and perhaps beyond.
The debate is as unexpected as it is extraordinary. One would have thought that the event that made Islam a national issue would be an act of terrorism. Or the discovery that Islamists had penetrated the US security services. Or the dismaying results of survey research. Or an apologetic presidential speech.
But no, something symbolic roiled the body politic – the prospect of a mosque in close proximity to the World Trade Center's former location.
What began as a local zoning issue has morphed into a national debate with potential foreign-policy repercussions.
Its symbolic quality fit a pattern established in other Western countries: Islamic coverings on females spurred repeated national debates in France from 1989 onward.
The Swiss banned the building of minarets. The murder of Theo van Gogh profoundly affected the Netherlands, as did the publication of anti- Muhammad cartoons in Denmark.
Oddly, only after the Islamic center's location had generated weeks of controversy did the issue of individuals, organizations and funding behind the project finally come to the fore. Personally, I do not object to a truly moderate Muslim institution near Ground Zero; conversely, I object to an Islamist institution being constructed anywhere.
Indeed, building the center in such close proximity to Ground Zero, given the intense emotions aroused, will likely redound against the longterm interests of Muslims in the US.
THIS NEW emotionalism marks the start of a difficult stage for Islamists in the US. Although their origins as an organized force go back to the founding of the Muslim Student Association in 1963, they came of age politically in the mid-1990s when they emerged as a force in US public life.
I was fighting Islamists back then, and things went badly. It was, in practical terms, just Steven Emerson and me versus hundreds of thousands of Islamists. He and I could not find adequate intellectual support, money, media interest or political backing.
Our cause felt hopeless.
My lowest point came in 1999, when a retired US foreign service officer named Richard Curtiss spoke on Capitol Hill about "the potential of the American Muslim community" and compared its advances to Muhammad's battles in seventh-century Arabia. He flat-out predicted that, just as Muhammad had prevailed, so too would American Muslims.
While Curtiss spoke only about changing policy toward Israel, his themes implied a broader Islamist takeover of the US. Disconsolate, I could not fight his prediction.
But 9/11 provided a wake-up call, ending Emerson's and my sense of hopelessness. Americans reacted not just to that day's horrifying violence, but also to the Islamists' outrageous insistence on blaming the attacks on US foreign policy, their blatant denial that the perpetrators were Muslims, and the intense popularity of the attacks among Muslims.
Scholars, columnists, bloggers, media personalities and activists became more knowledgeable about Islam, developing into a community focused on the Islamist threat, a community that now feels like a movement.
The Islamic Center controversy represents the movement's emergence as a political force, offering an angry, potent reaction inconceivable just a decade ago.
The energetic push-back of recent months finds me partially elated: Those who reject Islamism and all its works now constitute a majority and are on the march. For the first time in 15 years, I feel I may be on the winning team.
But I have one concern: the team's increasing anti-Islamic tone. Misled by the Islamists' insistence that there is no such thing as "moderate Islam," my allies often fail to distinguish between Islam (a faith) and Islamism (a radical utopian ideology aiming to implement Islamic law in its totality). This amounts not just to an intellectual error but a policy dead-end. Targeting all Muslims conflicts with basic Western notions, lumps friends together with foes, and ignores the inescapable fact that Muslims alone can offer an antidote to Islamism. As I often note, radical Islam is the problem, and moderate Islam is the solution.
This lesson learned, the defeat of Islamism can come into sight.
The writer (www.DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.