Religious Freedom Trumps Our Feelings, ctd

In my previous post on this topic, I laid out my argument and others’ for allowing the proposed mosque to be built. President Obama courageously and dutifully addressed the nation and also supported the religious freedom of Muslims to build a mosque on private property.

I completely agree when the President says,

As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.  And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America.  And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.  The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.  The writ of the Founders must endure.

He or I did not, however, comment on what he calls “the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”

Well Sam Harris tries to thread the needle by distancing himself from “many who oppose the construction of this mosque [that] embody all that is terrifyingly askew in conservative America—“birthers,” those sincerely awaiting the Rapture, opportunistic Republican politicians, and utter lunatics who yearn to see Sarah Palin become the next president of the United States (note that Palin herself probably falls into several of these categories). These people are wrong about almost everything under the sun.” He’s attempting to jab his carefully threaded needle into the wisdom without puncturing the liberal values of America’s founding and its citizens’ constitutional rights. Outside the piece he explains that he wrote this article before President Obama gave the speech – the editors wrote the title and lead in. Within his essay, I do think he bursts President Obama’s diplomatic statement that “Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam -– it’s a gross distortion of Islam.  These are not religious leaders -– they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children.” I do worry that careless readers with fall into the trap of thinking Harris is too easily grouping moderates and extremists; failing to discriminate. Further in however Harris’s thread comes close to falling out.

And the erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory—and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice. This may not be reason enough for the supporters of this mosque to reconsider their project. And perhaps they shouldn’t. Perhaps there is some form of Islam that could issue from this site that would be better, all things considered, than simply not building another mosque in the first place. But this leads me to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: American Muslims should be absolutely free to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero; but the ones who should do it probably wouldn’t want to.

Harris might be right that it is unfortunate that these peaceful American Muslims would want to build their mosque so close to Ground Zero if they are actually interested in easing tensions between communities (clearly that isn’t working yet), but I’m not sure he’s right that it shows that “liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.” Even if some terrorists overseas view it that way, in my mind it highlights the strength of our values to withstand even what a majority of our citizens find “offensive.” I don’t want to be held hostage to whatever religious terrorists may think about our decisions or values. Furthermore, allowing the construction stands in stark contrast to how many in the Muslim world treat things they find offensive. Christopher Hitchens spotlights that gambit.

A widespread cultural cringe impels many people to the half-belief that it’s better to accommodate “moderates” like Rauf as a means of diluting the challenge of the real thing. So for the sake of peace and quiet, why not have Comedy Central censor itself or the entire U.S. press refuse to show the Danish cartoons?

This kind of capitulation needs to be fought consistently. But here is exactly how not to resist it. Take, for example, the widely publicized opinion of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Supporting those relatives of the 9/11 victims who have opposed Cordoba House, he drew a crass analogy with the Final Solution and said that, like Holocaust survivors, “their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.” This cracked tune has been taken up by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who additionally claim to be ventriloquizing the emotions of millions of Americans who did notsuffer bereavement. It has also infected the editorial pages of the normally tougher-minded Weekly Standard, which called on President Obama to denounce the Cordoba House on the grounds that a 3-to-1 majority of Americans allegedly find it “offensive.”

Where to start with this part-pathetic and part-sinister appeal to demagogy? To begin with, it borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail. Claim that something is “offensive,” and it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument. You are even allowed to admit, as does Foxman, that the ground for taking offense is “irrational and bigoted.” But, hey—why think when you can just feel?

I have to admit, when I first heard that they were building a “Ground Zero Mosque” I assumed it was going to be in the new Twin Towers. Viscerally and immediately I opposed that; but once I learned it was being built on private property and off the site of the Twin Towers, I couldn’t find any reason for restricting the freedom of fellow Americans. Now I still don’t think I’d argue in favor of putting a mosque there if I was making the decision (fortunately in America we don’t allow the opinion of random citizens to decide such questions), and I can’t help but understand the emotional appeal of people like this 9/11 firefighter in opposing the mosque’s construction (which I watched as I sat in the ER). I don’t agree with all his arguments but I can empathize with his perspective. This puts me in a difficult place. How can I on the one hand give his argument from offense weight while actively instigating offense in campaigns like “Draw Mohammed Day” (e.g. here and here)? Well to me it illustrates the essential difference in supporting freedom in practice to just giving it lip service. Conor Friedersdorf puts the opposition to the test.

Imagine a suburban street where three kids in a single family were molested by a Catholic priest, who was subsequently transferred by the archbishop to a faraway parish, and never prosecuted. Nine years later, a devout Catholic woman who lives five or six doors down decides that she’s going to start a prayer group for orthodox Catholics — they’ll meet once a week in her living room, and occasionally a local priest, recently graduated from a far away seminary, will attend.

Even if we believe that it is irrational for the mother of the molested kids to be upset by this prayer group on her street, it’s easy enough to understand her reaction. Had she joined an activist group critical of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the molestation, it’s easy to imagine that group backing the mother. As evident is the fact that the devout Catholic woman isn’t culpable for molestations in the Catholic church — in fact, even though we understand why her prayer group upsets the neighbor, it is perfectly plausible that the prayer group organizers never imagined that their plan would be upsetting or controversial. In their minds (and in fact), they’re as opposed to child molestation as anyone, and it’s easy to see why they’d be offended by any implication to the contrary.

Presented with that situation, how should the other people on the street react? Should they try to get city officials to prevent the prayer meetings from happening because they perhaps violate some technicality in the neighborhood zoning laws? Should they hold press conferences denouncing the devout woman? Should they investigate the priest who plans to attend? What if he once said, “Child molestation is a terrible sin, it is always wrong, and I am working to prevent it from ever happening again. I feel compelled to add that America’s over-sexualized culture is an accessory to this crime.” Does that change anything?

I’d certainly side with the woman who wants to hold the prayer group, and her fellow orthodox Catholics.

Does anyone think any of those talk-radio hosts opposing the mosque would similarly oppose the Christian prayer group? What about Gingrich or Palin? Certainly, the mosque case is more extreme in degree, but I fail to see any difference in principle.


I still believe that once tensions simmer down, America will be stronger for allowing this construction. As I argued before, we’re not so fragile that we can’t live with this. We must remember that even if it is unadvisable or unwise for these Americans to build their mosque here, they aren’t responsible for 9/11. Feelings aren’t permanent, freedom should be. And, hey, we can always support building a gay bar next to it.

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  1. August 16, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    I find it extremely ironic that the conservatives… the people who take the constitution, which was written 200 years ago, and interpret it 100% literally are the same people in the same breath want to take religious freedoms away from Americans. Unfortunately somewhere along the twisted line people in the US have labeled the country as "Christian" when in fact it is secular. Gotta love the one way thinkers

  2. Pat
    August 16, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    In the words of Mike Lupica, "this isn't about religious freedom, this is about common sense." Lupica goes on to say:"Michael Bloomberg tells people where to smoke and where to walk in Times Square, how much fat they can have in their food, bullies anybody who gets in his way. Now anybody who disagrees with him on the building of this mosque is against freedom of religion and the First Amendment. Why? Because Bloomberg stamps his foot and says so, that's why."He added:"The President came out hot on this, too. Then as soon as he got hit he started going the other way, trying to be all things on this, saying, "I was not commenting and will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there." A one-man festival of political correctness.""Nobody disputes the principle of freedom of religion," Bonnie McEneaney (911 family member) was saying yesterday. "Of course Muslims should have the same spiritual rights the rest of us have. The question isn't about that. The question is about sensitivity. To me, this is solely about sensitivity, the feelings of the friends and relatives who lost loved ones on 9/11."As usual the liberals are jumping to conclusions, dismissing common sense, creating a straw man, and framing an issue into something that isn't (like they way they turn illegal immigration into an issue about racism or teachers unions into an issue about educating children). Gotta love those liberals: they make up problems so that they pretend to solve them. For the rest of the article see:http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/08/16/2010-08-16_families_not_mike__bam_should_have_the_final_say.html

  3. Pat
    August 16, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Oh, and by the way, apparently this isn't just a "conservative" issue. Harry Reid just came out against having the mosque built at the 911 site. Ha!

  4. August 17, 2010 at 6:29 am

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/opinion/17dalrymple.html?_r=1&ref=global-homeGive that a read. It's more or less what I was trying to express earlier, just said a thousand times better.

  5. August 17, 2010 at 6:32 am

    AWESOME call on the gay bar next to the mosque. That is the greatness of America in action.

  6. August 17, 2010 at 6:42 am

    "As usual the liberals are jumping to conclusions, dismissing common sense, creating a straw man, and framing an issue into something that isn't (like they way they turn illegal immigration into an issue about racism or teachers unions into an issue about educating children). Gotta love those liberals: they make up problems so that they pretend to solve them."Don't you see that these kinds of sweeping generalizations are hurting America and making dialogue impossible? It is fair to discuss the link between accusations of racism and the immigration debate. It is fair to discuss the link between teachers unions and actual education outcomes. But the "gotta love those liberals: they make up problems so they can pretend to solve them" statement is below you. You've shown yourself to be a better and more honest thinker than that clever little bumper sticker line would have us believe.

  7. August 17, 2010 at 6:56 am

    @ PatHarry Reid is just desperately trying to save his career would be my guess.

  8. August 17, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    @ PatHarry Reid is being a politician – political pandering isn't reserved to the left or right; I completely agree. It's unfortunate.I'm objecting to just that though – what does a Nevada senator's or Sarah Palin's personal feelings on a mosque in NYC matter? I'm distrustful of government involvement in a local matter. It'd be one thing if local residents and, say, the 9/11 families put emotional pressure on the mosque leaders to move the mosque – but people are trying legal means to disrupt the construction. That is a 1st amendment issue and a property rights issue. Do you deny that? If every talk radio host or opinion writer prefaced his opinion with "the owners of this property have every right to build a mosque there and deserve the same freedom from government infringement of their constitutional rights as every other citizen regardless of religion, race, or creed, but I find the proposed mosque personally objectionable and hope to persuade the owners to change their own minds on the location and here's why…" – it'd be a different story. Very few opponents say anything like that – that's a problem, especially for government officials and those with political aspirations. Do you disagree?Is it really that bad for the President of the United States to highlight the law (he swore to protect the constitution first and foremost, did he not?) and not inject himself into the issue on a personal level? How would him singling out a peaceful Muslim group look to the peaceful American muslim citizens and the rest of the world, and what effect would it have on our diplomatic and security goals? You're as quick to dismiss these substantive arguments from the other side as you are at calling out "liberals" for avoiding your questions. Mike Lupica is wrong. It's about religious freedom and sensitivity. I've put out my opinion on both important sides of that equation; care to do the same?

  9. Pat
    August 17, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Property rights? And is Eminent Domain legislation OK for everyone else?? Check. Double standard.What about cultural sensitivity? Is that just for minorities? Check. Double standard again.Local issue? I thought 911 was a national issue. But OK. So tell me why President Obama weighed in (heavily) on the Henry Louis Gates/Sgt James Crowley fiasco? Check. Double standard.Harry Reid is a political hack but the Republicans are fascists (for wanting the same thing)? Check. Double standard.

  10. August 17, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    @ PatIt is pretty easy to offer criticism without ever taking a stand yourself, isn't it? Why don't you just change the subject instead of actually confronting the issue at hand. First, I'm against eminent domain in almost all circumstances. I don't favor legislative cultural sensitivity for anyone; see my support for EDMD. 9/11 was national issue, yes. Building a mosque a couple of blocks away is not – unless it involves government officials actively seeking to take the constitutional rights away from American citizens. Here's my constitutional rights take on the HLG/Crowley "fiasco" I never called anyone fascists for this – but just a note: Reid did say that he believes they have the right to build there – he's just personally against it. Meanwhile people like Newt Gingrich and Michael Savage (who I heard saying on the radio last night) want to duplicate the practices of Saudi Arabia. So you can point out all the "double standards" you want and ignore the actual issue at hand. Since when does the hypocrisy of politicians excuse the hypocrisy of "your side." I do my best to point out bad arguments where ever I see them – including in myself. Feel free to actually attempt answering my questions and challenges or you can continue to duck them. Your choice.

  11. August 17, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    @ PatWrong again. I think Harry Reid, if he wasn't in such a lousy situation, probably would have kept his trap shut because it is easier. In any case, I strongly disagree with him regardless of his motivations. I imagine there must be some real conservatives out there who are sticking up for the right to build the mosque. Point me to that Republican and I will laud him publically as a defender of American values. A quick search turned up this statement from Rand Paul's office…"We are focused on this race and the issues affecting Kentucky. We don’t want New York intervening in our local Kentucky issues, and we don’t look to interfere with New York’s local issues." There's someone who knew to bite their tongue. Better than nothing I guess. He should kidnap Harry Reid and make him do drugs and retract his statements. In my opinion, Obama shouldn't have gotten involved in the Gates/Crowley thing. That shouldn't have been a national issue and many Democrats hold this position. I'm curious at to what you mean by cultural sensitivity. How is there a lack of cultural sensitivity for the majority? What constitutes the majority for you? Who said anything about fascists anyway? There are certainly Republicans who are speaking up about this to snag votes as well. Guilty parties on both sides here. The key to the whole debate is the fact that the opponents are trying to avoid: they have the right to build the thing. They can say it is in bad taste. That's fine. We get it. Everyone understands that people don't like it. Unfortunately for them, the Constitution wins and they don't. Your consistent blanket criticism of the left and Democrats is worthless. If it is to hear yourself type, keep plugging away. If it is to expand the discussion, I don't see it happening. I'm spending about an hour a day entertaining your statements and trying to pump a little gray into black and white generalizations. For all I know, you might be a RNC blogbot programmed to hammer home all the right talking points.

  12. August 17, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    For the record here's former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson who is taking the right stand: "An enormously complex and emotional issue — but ultimately the right thing to do. A president is president for every citizen, including every Muslim citizen. Obama is correct that the way to marginalize radicalism is to respect the best traditions of Islam and protect the religious liberty of Muslim Americans. It is radicals who imagine an American war on Islam. But our conflict is with the radicals alone.” Pat, I really hope you can get away from the partisan football stuff. Try grappling with the ideas on this blog – I'm still waiting for your response to my questions and challenges. I've criticized Reid. Zach did too. I've criticized the president's idea that terrorism isn't connected to Islam, but agreed with his position on the mosque. I've praised Bush himself and his speech writer. Zach offered some positive thoughts on Rand Paul and criticized Obama's involvement in the Gates affair. You wouldn't necessarily know this about me but I got a lot of harsh criticism in college for writing strongly worded polemics against affirmative action. And on and on. It just seems that we're more than willing to criticize the left or the Democrats and praise the Republicans where appropriate – I'll be waiting to see if you can do the same. Stop trying to just "win" the argument.

  13. Pat
    August 17, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Okay. Let me add this: Whether or not we agree with President Obama's comments on the proposed NYC mosque, they were obviously not made for political gain. I respect that. Enormously. We all should.

  14. August 17, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    I enjoy and salute the unqualified praise. That's what I'm talking about; it's important to be able to do that – see the man as a layered political actor and human not just evil or good. Too many on the left or right aren't ever prepared to acknowledge the other side's good intentions. Now, as I'm not one to let anyone's intellectual faculties rest let me push you further. Let's see how far you're willing to stretch that open mind. I assume you don't agree with the president given what you said, but where do you disagree? He didn't comment on the "wisdom" of the proposed mosque after all. Do you disagree with the substance of his remarks? I wrote that I disagree with his characterization of terrorism's nonconnection to Islam. But I agree with the rest of his remarks. You certainly have the same disagreement in that particular case with him, but is there anything else you disagree with? If not, can't you understand why he'd say something like that in order to encourage peaceful muslims to believe that the United States isn't out to get all muslims just the terrorists? Secondly, are you willing to go further and now offer criticism of any mainstream conservatives? Try it, it's cathartic. For example, you believe that the President's statement is made out of conviction and not politics – do you think it's possible or likely that Gingrich or Palin are taking their highly public stands for political reasons? One of the aims of this blog is to get people to understand different perspectives on all issues and challenge their own biases and thus reach closer to the truth.

  15. Pat
    August 18, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Its not what he (Obama) said, but what he didn't but should have said, which is, a commentary on the "wisdom of the decision". This would have gone a long way in bringing down the dividing lines. It would have brought solace and recognition to those who are affected by the insensitivity of such a project. It would have put the Muslims (moderate??) on the defensive-which needs to happen. Palin is, in your words, just a layered political actor that provides balance to some of the outrageousness of the left. Not always to be taken seriously, but nonetheless, human in her ability to connect with people who, in my honest opinion, have their hearts in the right place, but are not as educated or articulate (as you) in making a solid argument.How's that as a start?

  16. August 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    I actually disagree that Obama should have commented on that but I suppose that's a fair disagreement to have. Clive Crook favors the mosque but agrees with you that he should have given his opinion too, he writes, "Let's assume he would like the mosque to be built, which would be my guess. It also happens to be my own view, for that's worth. What should he have said? Something along these lines."The Constitution's protection of religious freedom is central to this country's meaning and purpose. Yet many Americans are uneasy about this project. I understand and respect their feelings. The Ground Zero site is hallowed ground, and calls for special sensitivity. Critics of the decision to build are within their rights to express their objections, and to call for it to be reversed. As this discussion proceeds, I implore both sides to show understanding and tolerance, because the way we talk this through matters more than the eventual outcome. I urge the project's advocates to reflect sympathetically on the sensitivities aroused by this unique site. And I urge opponents of the centre to consider the message we could send to our enemies by welcoming this building to a site near Ground Zero: Unlike you, we embrace religious freedom; we celebrate Muslim Americans as fellow citizens; Islam is not our enemy. The president's opinion on this difficult matter has no special standing, and I am not seeking to bring the debate to an end, but I will tell you what I think. I hope that critics will think about the opportunity we have in this project to advance our ideals and demonstrate them to the world, that the objections are withdrawn, and that the project can go ahead.""That's a reasonable position to hold, but I think Clive unfairly assumes Obama would be for the mosque. Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't – we don't know. If Obama is against the wisdom of the mosque, would Clive still feel like he should speak out against it? That's unclear. It isn't advisable to only call for his opinion on the condition that it'd agree with your sentiments. If Obama had come out and argued against the mosque it might be seen to be unfairly lumping peaceful American muslims with terrorists and that, obviously, wouldn't be good for diplomatic relations or for civil respect/assimilation here. Obama didn't ignore the sensitivity of the situation, he said, "Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground." So is it that you want Obama to speak out or you want Obama to speak out if his views are the same as yours? I'd ask the same question of Clive.

  17. August 18, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Oh ya, good start…

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