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Religious Freedom Trumps Our Feelings, ctd

August 16, 2010 17 comments

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.

Religious Freedom Trumps Our Feelings

August 5, 2010 3 comments

It shouldn’t be a mystery to readers of this blog that I think Islam is often a dangerous religious ideology and that the Islamic beliefs of the 9/11 terrorists motivated their decision to engage in murderous jihad. But you know what? Our nation is founded on the ideals of liberty. All muslims aren’t terrorists. Self-proclaimed “constitutional conservatives” like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich should read this line of first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”


The proposed mosque and community center seems perfectly designed to assimilate muslims into mainstream American culture. It is modeled after Jewish community centers for goodness sake. Peaceful muslims (who were also Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks by the way; yes Newt, muslims can be Americans too) should be allowed to participate in their community and grieve for those lost. The Economist agrees.

In a tweet last month from Alaska, Ms Palin called on “peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” the “ground-zero mosque” because it would “stab” American hearts. But why should it? Cordoba House is not being built by al-Qaeda. To the contrary, it is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a well-meaning American cleric who has spent years trying to promote interfaith understanding, not an apostle of religious war like Osama bin Laden. He is modelling his project on New York’s 92nd Street Y, a Jewish community centre that reaches out to other religions. The site was selected in part precisely so that it might heal some of the wounds opened by the felling of the twin towers and all that followed. True, some relatives of 9/11 victims are hurt by the idea of a mosque going up near the site. But that feeling of hurt makes sense only if they too buy the false idea that Muslims in general were perpetrators of the crime. Besides, what about the feelings, and for that matter the rights, of America’s Muslims—some of whom also perished in the atrocity?

The best defense of the mosque comes from New York’s own major – this is a New York not federal decision after all. 

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

Mayor Bloomberg delivers stirring affirmation of religious freedom“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.

How fragile do reactionaries like Palin and Gingrich think America and its constitution are that it can’t withstand another mosque in Lower Manhattan


(photo: Edward Reed)

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