"I don't think that this type of pandering improves our image with anyone," said Ilario Pantano, a congressional candidate in North Carolina who worked in the now-destroyed World Trade Center 4 before joining the Marine Corps. "It suggests that we're exactly what the radical fringe believes we are, too soft and lethargic to actually defend ourselves. I'm not talking about all Muslims. I'm talking about radicals, and I think it's clear that this would be a victory for them. I mean, are we going to put up a martyr marker every time one of these terrorists blow themselves up?"
According to Pantano, the Bush administration's softer approach to Islam—the president's repeated insistence that Islam is a "religion of peace"—made perfect sense. The problem, he said, was that it lulled Americans into a "false sense of security" and failed to inform them that the goal of radical Islam was not just terrorism, but the imposition of Sharia law. Retired Lt. Col. Allen West, who is making a well-funded run for Congress in Florida, seconded Pantano.
"When Bush made that statement, he was inaccurate," said West. "It showed he had not yet done a good and proper study of the issue, and the next thing you knew his statement was being twisted. I think you've got to have a better understanding of the culture and mentality of radical Islam than that. Tolerance is fine. When tolerance is a one-way street, it leads to cultural suicide."
The sudden, news-cycle-devouring omnipresence of the "ground zero mosque" isn't necessarily bad news for Democrats. Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist argued that it had created, out of thin air, a way for embattled Democrats to distract voters from their economic record and create a new, flashy difference between them and President Obama. (It's exactly what Sen. Harry Reid tried on Monday.)
But the mosque furor is devastating for the people who worry about how the Muslim world interprets the news coming out of the United States. It was hard enough before, Glassman says—the majority of world Muslims are willing to believe the worst about how Americans view their faith. When America responded to the 2004 tsunami in devastated parts of Indonesia, one popular conspiracy theory suggested that America was on a mission of conquest.
"The most powerful narrative that the United States has to fight, among Muslims, is this idea that we're out to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity," Glassman says. "When you view the world through a particular prism, it doesn't take much for an event to play into your narrative. Any incident will do."