09/14/2010 01:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The National Security Case for Religious Tolerance

After pausing to remember the victims of 9/11 over the weekend, it is wise to reflect on the greater implications of that tragedy.

The worsened treatment of Muslims in the U.S. is an unfortunate residual effect that has grown as the threat of Islamic terrorism continues. Most people recognize that Islamic extremists are merely a tiny sample of a massive Muslim population, but others are guilty of the fallacy of hasty generalization.

People like Terry Jones are extreme cases, but there are many in the U.S. who do not afford Islam the same treatment as other religions. Indeed, many are intolerant of Muslims, and persecution is on the rise.

If some do not think that the cherished American principle of religious freedom is reason enough to be tolerant of Muslims, perhaps the national security implications of not doing so will convince them. Beyond the danger posed to American troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, mistreatment of Muslims jeopardizes the United States homeland.

For every Muslim that is the victim of a hate crime, for every mosque that is vandalized, for every ignorant pastor or self-serving pundit that spreads hatred by misrepresenting Islam and denouncing mosques, American national security is endangered. The propaganda value of such occurrences for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations is enormous.

At a time when Islamic extremists are losing support in the Muslim world, intolerant Americans are throwing them a life line by making it easier for them to convince their constituents that the U.S. hates Muslims. This, in turn, helps them recruit new terrorists and also makes others more likely to offer material support or turn a blind eye to extremists operating in their communities.

The struggle with terrorism is a war of ideas, and it is not between Islam and the West, but rather between extremism and civilization. It cannot be delineated along geographic lines, but is drawn on ideological ones. Our allies are moderates of all creeds the world over, while our enemies are extremists everywhere, regardless of religion.

For example, the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA) -- a Christian terrorist group that was based in Arkansas -- constituted a significant threat to the U.S. before the FBI disrupted it in 1985. Had the CSA enjoyed greater freedom to operate and more time to plan its attacks, it might have successfully perpetrated atrocities surpassing 9/11 in scope. Among other things, the CSA plotted to poison the water supplies of major U.S. cities with potassium cyanide in an effort to hasten the arrival of Armageddon through mass murder.

As this example illustrates, dangerous extremism can come from anywhere. However, we cannot ignore that many extremists who have attacked the U.S. and continue to threaten to do so are from majority-Muslim countries. This means that if we want to undermine support for Islamic extremists, we have to be aware of how our behavior is perceived by the average Muslim.

Merely planning to burn the Quran was enough to spark riots in parts of the Muslim world, including one that led to an attempt to storm a NATO base in Faizabad, Afghanistan. Though I question the wisdom of such an intense reaction to a lunatic with a miniscule following, this is the world we live in. It should not surprise us that more extreme acts of religious persecution committed against Muslims can lead some to support or join terrorist groups that target the U.S.

The CSA was successfully monitored and dismantled in part because it was based on U.S. soil. In the case of Islamic terrorist groups, we must often rely on the governments and societies of Muslim nations to shut them down. If we are seen as a country of Muslim-haters, cooperation will not be as forthcoming as we would like.

We can try to eliminate terrorists through military operations, but this is not a good long-term solution. In the short-term, we can disrupt some terrorist groups this way, but the destruction and civilian casualties wrought by military ventures often end up alienating the affected communities and creating more future terrorists. There is also the pesky issue of national sovereignty.

In the long run, the best way to combat terrorism is by empowering moderates and undermining support for extremists. Through our actions at home and abroad we can do so by demonstrating that our society is peaceful, generous, just, and tolerant.

This is difficult, however, when some decry Islam as the work of Satan and persecute its followers. For most Americans, such actions are deplorable in and of themselves. For those who have fewer qualms about religious hatred, maybe the fact that they are doing exactly what Islamic extremists want will give them pause.