The debate over the mosque in lower Manhattan has caused our country's political volcano to erupt. Republicans and Democrats, among them Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have argued that the designated site for the Cordoba House, a Muslim community center and mosque, is too close to hallowed ground. President Obama defended the mosque supporters' Constitutional right to build it where they choose.
But there is a much larger rationale for building a Muslim community center near the former site of the Twin Towers: It can be used as a weapon to defeat al Qaeda.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, our counterterrorism strategy has focused on stopping terrorist attacks. That's an important goal, but only part of the equation. A comprehensive strategy should include a greater focus on removing the root causes of terrorism. The only way to deliver a sustainable defeat to al Qaeda is to both destroy its leadership and cut off its ability to recruit.
Building a Muslim community center near the site of Ground Zero will bolster our ability to do the latter. Imagine an al Qaeda recruiter attempting to sway a potential charge by citing an imaginary American war against Muslims but having to face the counterargument that Americans built a Muslim community center near the site of the former Twin Towers.
The Cordoba House would be a powerful symbol of U.S. tolerance and freedom that will stand in direct contradiction to al Qaeda's narrative that Americans hate Muslims. As a symbol, its construction demonstrates that the U.S. is not at war with Islam and that Muslims are welcome in America. It communicates a message of moderation that stands in stark contrast to al Qaeda's bankrupt ideology.
As I discovered as a high-level interrogator of al Qaeda members in Iraq, symbols like this matter. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the policy of torture and abuse handed al Qaeda its number one recruiting tool. Those who think al Qaeda will not be able to spin this controversy to their advantage are disastrously mistaken -- but it can be a victory for America as well.
The political uproar over the Cordoba project, and in particular the use of harmful, bigoted rhetoric by some opportunists, leaves America facing a choice. It can project one of two symbols: One of integration, acceptance and positive affirmation of American values; or one of intolerance, rejection, and animosity. The former will work to undermine al Qaeda as part of a long-term strategy to defeat them. The latter will bolster Islamic extremists' arguments that America is an intolerant country hell-bent on war with Islam, aid recruitment efforts and add support for more terrorist attacks.
The choice is obvious. Let's build the Cordoba House.