The main argument against building the Park51 mosque adjacent to Ground Zero has been that its placement would be a lasting affront to the memory of the Americans who died at the hands of Muslim terrorists. And that argument is certainly sufficient by itself. But it is not the most important argument against a mosque in that location. To understand what is, we must remember what happened the last time we fought against suicide bombers, who, like their contemporary Muslim counterparts, were inspired by what they felt to be a divine mission.
In the Second World War, Japanese suicide bombers posed a huge threat to allied ships. One pilot could take out a heavily fortified ship by crashing a plane stuffed with explosives into its deck, a result that would have taken a huge investment of lives and material to achieve by conventional means. The individual pilot faced certain death, but he accepted that fate because he believed that the Gods were with him and with Japan. The word used to describe this tactic (“kamikaze”) refers to an event in Japanese history where the country was saved from invasion and conquest by Kubla Khan. A sudden typhoon scattered the Khan’s fleet. The Japanese saw the wind as an intervention by their Gods, and so in WWII they called their suicide pilots another divine wind, that is, the kamikaze.
The sense that the Gods are with you must be kept strong enough in the minds of suicide pilots to override the normal instinct for self-preservation, but that means that defeats and victories alike are leveraged. A great victory is not just something that advances your cause—equally important to the suicide bomber is that it strongly reinforces his sense that the Gods are with him; for did not the victory show that the Gods were smiling on Japan? This was also the basis of the Japanese soldier’s fanatical zeal toward fighting to the death, with surrender not being an honorable option.
The enormously destructive bombing of Britain and Germany only brought out the stubbornness of the population, yet the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagakasi quickly broke the Japanese will to fight, even though their fighting spirit had been unmatched throughout the war. Why? Something is certainly due to the scope of the weapon used, but more important was the leveraging effect that defeats and victories have on people with a sense of divine mission. Catastrophes on the scale of Hiroshima could not be reconciled with the notion that the Gods were with Japan. The sense of a divine mission simply vanished. Japan not only surrendered (hitherto unthinkable for any Japanese soldier), but actually changed direction so completely that it soon became a peaceful democratic nation. By contrast, Germany only surrendered when virtually the entire nation had been destroyed.
The case of Japan in WWII tells us why building the mosque at Ground Zero will not just offend American sensibilities—more important is that it will cost many additional American lives. Islamist suicide bombers too need to have the idea firmly in their minds that Allah is with them and their cause. That means that the same leveraging effect is in play. Great victories enhance the conviction that Allah is with them, and that will produce even more suicide bombers. Great defeats (for example, the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan) will begin to undermine that conviction; for how could Allah desert his warriors so?
Who can doubt that potential and actual Islamic terrorists will take it as a sign from Allah when a huge mosque is built in the shadow of their greatest victory? Surely they will see it as Allah crowning their victory of 9/11 and making it even greater. And just as surely, they will see it as an invitation to even greater things than 9/11, because Allah has shown them again that he is with them. That is the psychology of terrorists with a sense of divine mission. And so we need to avoid at all costs anything that will be seen as a divine blessing for their efforts, and we should instead be looking for ways to hand them demoralizing defeats. If the divine wind blows in the other direction often enough, sooner or later believers will start to wonder whether it is in fact divine.
What this means is that Imam Rauf has things exactly backwards. He tells us that a defeat for his project at Ground Zero will encourage the terrorists to more violence. To the contrary, it is the success of his project that will encourage the terrorists to more violence. A man as well versed in Islamic matters as Rauf must know this perfectly well—which makes his specious, devious argument to the contrary just one more reason to question his good-will and sincerity.
John Ellis is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz