National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter is leaving his post next month. The former fighter pilot, Harvard Law Review president, and law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has just completed work crafting a new national counterterrorism strategy for the White House, one that will help coordinate U.S. counterterrorism efforts with those of our allies in the wake of the bin Laden killing and the Arab Spring. The strategy sets priorities for terror targets and breaks threats into two tiers, according to sources familiar with it.
That was Leiter’s day job, and he was tough at it. What is less well known is the tremendous efforts the NCTC director made during his tenure conducting outreach to the U.S. Muslim community. His work in this area is worth noting, because it provides a model for what both government and the private sector need to be doing to counter a rhetoric of conflict that undermines this nation’s long tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance.
At community gatherings, mosques, and private iftars* in the Washington, D.C. area and across the country, Leiter and his staff have delivered a simple and direct message to U.S. Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is that, as Americans, we are all on the same side in the war against violent extremism. Terrorists do not distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims in their murderous endeavors. And when acts of terrorism occur, the backlash hurts U.S. Muslims by sowing seeds of distrust and suspicion among their non-Muslim neighbors and attracting uncomfortable law enforcement scrutiny of a community that remains, according to recent surveys, majority immigrant. This backlash contributes to a perception that American Muslims, even those who can trace their roots in this country back a hundred years or more, are outsiders.
But it is not only the terrorists who have contributed to such growing polarization. There is a small but very enterprising community of bloggers, pamphleteers, and journalists, many operating on the fringes of the right, who hope to raise money and score political points by demonizing the Muslim faith, painting all who practice it as either terrorist sympathizers or potential recruits. With talk of “creeping Shariah” and fifth columns, these ideologues have made some headway with ballot initiatives and a few state legislative measures — all likely to fail First Amendment scrutiny in the courts. More dangerous still, their talking points are starting to gain some traction in the campaign language of a few politicians as we enter the 2012 political cycle.
Leiter has it right. Part of the terrorists’ playbook is the claim that in America Muslims are vilified or treated as second-class citizens. The rhetoric of religious polarization plays directly into the narrative of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Politicians looking to craft a message for 2012 would do well to avoid doing Al Qaeda that favor.
Without for a moment compromising the strong defense of our citizens and our strategic interests, candidates should avoid the rhetoric of conflict and polarization. The outgoing NCTC director has provided a model of toughness and tolerance worth emulating.
* An iftar is the meal taken after sundown in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (during which no food or water is taken by the devout Muslim from sunup to sundown). For anyone who has fasted for a single day as an act of spiritual devotion or purification, the discipline of a month-long fast is impressive!
Meryl Justin Chertoff is Director of The Aspen Institute’s Justice and Society Program. She is an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown Law.