Jihadi Forums Silent on Cordoba Controversy

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The infamous jihadi web forums, which form the informal cultural core of the diffuse jihadi community, have been silent on the controversy over the Cordoba Center, an issue that is increasingly consuming U.S. and Arab media. Two experts who regularly monitor Arab and jihadi media, working independently, have found that jihadi forum users barely mention the issue. George Washington University associate professor and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies Marc Lynch found not even "a single reference" to the center among 500 recent posts. Brandeis University Research Assistant Aaron Zelin, who maintains a blog monitoring jihadi media, could find only one related post, which itself received almost no response, among the five most prominent forums. The forums are widely considered a window into the attitudes of the jihadi community, which must use them to communicate.

The lack of debate comes despite predictions that the Cordoba controversy would dominate forums and despite heavy coverage of the issue in Arab media. As The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, the Cordoba Center is the enemy of jihadi ideology because it promotes peaceful Muslim assimilation into pluralistic Western society, American opposition to the center plays into the jihadi mission of a clash of civilizations, and the marginalization of mainstream Muslim-Americans like those behind the center helps the jihadis by giving them a propaganda victory.

It remains very plausible that such jihadist spokesmen as American-born Anwar al-Awlaki will use the U.S. debate over the Cordoba Center as propaganda to further their argument that free Western societies like the U.S. are the enemies of all Muslims. But just because it makes for useful propaganda doesn't mean that jihadists actually care about whether the center, which they consider apostasy and thus little different than a synagogue or church, ever gets built in a city they will want to destroy in either case.

Still, it is surprising just how little coverage the Cordoba controversy has received on the forums. Although the forums rarely address internal U.S. political issues--they mostly emphasize the role of the U.S. in Muslim-majority countries--the debate has generated heavy coverage in the Arab media. However, it's important to note that the two mediums address two very different audiences which likely have very different takes on the controversy. For the general audience, mainstream consumers of Arab media, the Cordoba Center's hostile reception could well look like an indicator of U.S. attitudes towards Islam. The conflict between certain U.S. politicians and the Cordoba Center's English-speaking, Judaism-endorsing, America-loving founder, Imam Feisal Rauf, must be especially alarming.

But for the jihadis, a struggle between Imam Rauf, whom the jihadis do not consider a true Muslim, and Newt Gingrich is just not an event that directly concerns them beyond propaganda purposes. They hate America-embracing Muslims just as much as they hate America itself. This is not their fight; there is no side for them to champion. However, given the opportunity, they would be happy to use it as an excuse to further the lie of a clash of civilization between Muslims and the West, which is at the heart of their ideology. But the fact that they discuss the issue so little among themselves suggests the extent to which the jihadis consider the fight over the Cordoba Center as having nothing to do with them.

Image: Screenshot of As-Ansar.com, one of several prominent jihadi forums.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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