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Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

Ask Yourself

April 1, 2011 2 comments

How many books would a delusional crank have to burn before you started murdering innocent people?

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“Arcane theological points from the ninth century”

March 23, 2011 1 comment

Last week’s New York Times Magazine carried an engrossing story about Yasir Qadhi, a controversial and conservative Islamic cleric in America.

In the West, jihad is often depicted as a self-contained, violent cause. But in Qadhi’s world, it exists within a panoply of complex and overlapping issues. The most immediate question is not whether to fight overseas but how to make peace living in the pluralistic West.

Debates pivot on arcane theological points from the ninth century, a time when religious empires reigned, not secular nations. Classical scholars reference a world divided between dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, and dar al-harb, the land of war. But which land is America?

[…]

“It is an awkward position to be in,” he wrote of his situation. “How can one simultaneously fight against a powerful government, a pervasive and sensationalist-prone media and a group of overzealous, rash youth who are already predisposed to reject your message, because they view you as being a part of the establishment (while, ironically, the ‘establishment’ never ceases to view you as part of the radicals)?”

His position might not only be awkward – it could be futile. Is Salafiya Islam compatible with America? Can Qadhi and others like him be persuasive to young Muslims that are disposed to radicalization? I’m not hopeful if the solution is to win a 9th century theology debate.

(photo: Andrea Elliott, Eric Owles, Josh Williams/The New York Times)

A Clear Illustration of Cultural Blackmail

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Most people get upset that anyone would offend another group of people. Too few get upset at the asymmetrical response of the offended. Let’s not forget the 24/7 media circus surrounding the harmless actions of a bigot in Gainsville, Florida. I’ll predict now that no where near the coverage, if you hear of it at all on the major news shows, will focus on this appalling outcome of cultural blackmail designed to make the First Amendment only text on a page. The cartoonist, formerly Molly Norris, that thought up “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” (here, here) is now in hiding because of the death threats and fatwa against her life. I’m just wondering when President Obama will point out the right of people to offend others even if he doesn’t comment on the wisdom of it.

Media Reports On Burning Paper

September 9, 2010 3 comments

Most of us are aware of the religious crank that wants to burn some paper in Gainsville, Florida. I think “Democracy in America” has the perfect reaction to the controversy.

What a great way to report objectionable or violent publicity stunts, right? What could be more frustrating for a publicity-seeking extremist than to have the media refuse to report their cause? “Men set off bomb to publicise their message.” “Youths insult people to publicise their message.” Or, more recently, “Group will burn texts to seek media hype.”

There is no need to put a spotlight on a guy like this. But we also need to step back and notice a few of things. First, we can’t hope to prevent every individual from doing stupid things. Second, his right to burn paper is protected by the First Amendment. Third, we shouldn’t be excusing religious overreaction to an individual burning paper that he doesn’t believe is sacred. PZ Myers, noted desecrator, makes the case.

The lesson of that incident wasn’t that you can find some jerk somewhere who will disrespect what some group finds holy — that was trivial and uninteresting, and I actually had to ignore many of the elaborate suggestions for cracker disposal sent my way to emphasize the absolute triviality of tossing a cracker/piece of Jesus in the trash. No, the real lesson was that mobs of people will react with irrational freakish hysteria to the idea that other people don’t believe as they do.

The problem isn’t the desecrators. The problem is the people who have an unwarranted sense of privilege, that their beliefs wil not be questioned or criticized, ever, by anyone. What I was saying was that it was crazy to believe a cracker turns into Jesus, and what all the outraged Catholics were doing is confirming to an awesome degree just how mad their beliefs were, with their prolonged and excessive outrage.

So I’m looking at this recent episode with Terry Jones — a fellow I don’t like at all, and I think he’s a fanatical goofball — and I see that the serious problem here isn’t Jones at all…it’s all the lunatics who are insisting that burning the Koran is a major international catastrophe. (my emphasis)

I fully concede that actions like burning holy books might inspire violence against our troops. But that just suggests that we shouldn’t be publicizing the actions of a stupid man. I appreciate all the people trying to persuade (not including public officials) this pastor to not hold this event, but where is all the energy at trying to persuade fanatics from carrying out horrific acts of violence because some other fanatic decides to burn a freaking book? What does it suggest that people keep worrying that “peaceful” people will react with spectacular violence if they feel the slightest sense of offense? Also, I thought people weren’t supposed to judge the actions of an individual as representing the whole (I guess that was a one-way street). Of course this all ties into the whole New York Mosque controversy. Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic hits all the right points. Read the whole thing.

If the standpoint of broadly collective responsibility was the wrong way to explain the atrocities, so too was the standpoint of purely individual responsibility. There were currents of culture behind the killers. Their ideas were not only their own. I am reminded of those complications when I hear that Islam is a religion of peace. I have no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore. It is absurd to describe the perpetrators of September 11 as “murderers calling themselves Muslims,” as Karen Hughes recently did. They did not call themselves Muslims. They were Muslims. America was not attacked by Islam, but it was also not attacked by Jainism. Mohammed Atta and his band (as well as the growing number of “homegrown” Islamist killers and plotters) represent a real and burgeoning development within Islam, an actualization of one of Islam’s possibilities, an indigenous transnational movement of apocalyptic violence that has brought misery to Muslim societies, and to us. It is not Islamophobic to say so. Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are. Apologetic definitions of Islam will not avail anybody in this struggle.

The more we give into cultural blackmail which demands that we respect beliefs we don’t hold, that we yield to the sensitivities of Christians and Muslims, or that we embrace American conservatives’ convenient willingness to tout “the moral superiority of victimhood” the tougher our task will be to break the stranglehold these forces have on liberty, reason, and uncontrived peace. Real harmony will not be won through a cultural version of M.A.D. Be tolerant or else. Don’t criticize or else. Close your eyes to hypocrisy or else. Excuse away our immorality or else. 

Tell Me Again That Some Cultures Aren’t Better

September 2, 2010 2 comments

After my friend Dave posted an article by Susan Jacoby which targets her fellow “political liberals” for excusing horrible cultural practices for the mistaken idea that we have no right to judge any culture as better than another.

I am an atheist with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect. And I find myself in a lonely place in relation to many liberals, political and religious, because I cannot accept a multiculturalism that tends to excuse, under the rubric of “tolerance,” religious and cultural practices that violate universal human rights.

An interesting discussion ensued. I’ll just remark that I’m firmly on the side that says we have the ability, the right, and often the duty to point out when certain cultures are increasing suffering and failing to respect the human rights of others.  It’s often argued that to claim a faith or a culture is worse than another is to argue that the people within that culture are worse. Since I’m on my fantasy football kick, let me repeat my loose analogy I used to demonstrate the flaw with this argument.

Take a football team. In Team A the quarterback is the best in the game. Team B’s quarterback is therefore inferior to Team A’s QB. We can go down the list of every player on the roster. It is even possible that every player on Team A is better than the corresponding player on Team B. Most football fans should have already noticed that just because one team has a better player or better players overall doesn’t mean that the team is better as a whole. Football is a game of players, but also of strategy, execution, and will. If the culture/strategy of Team B is superior to that of Team A, Team B might ultimately be better. Obviously, the comparison with football teams and human societies is imprecise. But recognize that to criticize a culture is not to say that the people living with in that culture are necessarily worse people.


In my reading today I came across a cultural practice that results from the religious and cultural beliefs of the people. Don’t bother trying, as many often do, to divorce the beliefs of people to their actions, it’s a foolish endeavor.



For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means “boy player.” The men like to boast about it. 

“Having a boy has become a custom for us,” Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. “Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”

[…]

Sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law. Women are simply unapproachable. Afghan men cannot talk to an unrelated woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can’t even look at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to ankle.

“How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face,” 29-year-old Mohammed Daud told reporters. “We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful.”

Can someone really tell me seriously that a culture that mainstreams the rape of young boys, treats women as “unclean” and unequal, forces them into cloth bags is not worse than a culture that sends pedophiles to prison and therapy, strives to give women equality under law, and allows them to dress as they please? Notice that nothing in this argument excuses mistreatment of sex offenders, lapses in practical gender equality, or the over-sexualization of women in Western liberal culture. Fortunately, our culture also promotes freedom of speech which allows us to stay vigilant in fighting for our greater ideals. But that is just the thing, the ideal that it isn’t ok that children and women are used as sexual objects and that all humans regardless of gender or race have equal rights is a better ideal than the opposite. It is not impossible to say that, even if not perfect, the ideals of the Enlightenment are better than the ideals found in the Bible or the Qur’an. It’s also not just that the ideals are better but by almost every metric the lives as they are lived are qualitatively better for those of us living in liberal cultures compared to religious cultures.

The next most common argument I get is, well even if that is true, we should stick to criticizing the specific cultural practices and not the culture as a whole or that we shouldn’t criticize “moderate” or “liberal” Muslims or Christians because they are the ones we need on our side to fight the extremists.

I concede that as a strategic and tactical matter this argument may be correct. But recognize that even if it is true, it does not mean that in principle we can’t appraise different cultures and value systems. However, I have my doubts about the practical argument as well. This argument is utterly condescending to religious liberals and moderates – are we suggesting they’ll stop standing up against terrorism if they hear criticism or that they’ll become terrorists!? How liberal or moderate are they really if that is the concern?

Aside from the condescension, the argument lacks strong evidence and logical foundation. If religious faith and strict adherence to an ancient and barbaric book(s) are roots of the cultural practices we find abhorrent, shouldn’t we cut the root from under the poisonous and invasive plants? The plants are the cultural practices not the people for the record. Edmund Standing writing at Butterflies & Wheels explains, “On the Validity and Necessity of Atheist Criticism of Islam.”

During the debates over religion that occurred during the Enlightenment, which were often framed in extremely harsh language, it was not violent extremists under attack, but the very notion of God, supernatural authority, and so on. The result of those debates ultimately was that religion in Europe took a beating and no longer represents any sort of threat to liberal democracy. Likewise, religious arguments in the political sphere are longer accepted on ‘divine’ authority, but must be articulated in such a way that they make sense in a secular context. While Muslim moderates are doing – or trying to do – good work in hindering extremism, they must also accept that the Enlightenment critique also applies to their beliefs, and that in the adult world people have every right to make criticisms, even of liberal religion, that may appear ‘nasty’ on first reading. If liberal Muslims are willing to trample on the beliefs of their less moderate co-religionists, then they must also be prepared to have their beliefs trampled on as well. No-one would consider that their personal political views should be exempt from criticism just because they are non-violent political views, and it would be an absurd and worrying precedent to be set were that the case. Religion is no different. Despite the fact that religious people seem to have a lot emotionally invested in their ‘faith’, the fact remains that religion, just like politics, is an ideology, and as such it is a perfectly legitimate target for criticism and debate, even if it is liberal and moderate in its nature.

[…]

Ultimately, Islam and the Qur’an do not pose problems because of ‘misinterpretation’, but rather because they belong to a world far from modernity and are actually of no relevance to modernity. Atheists have every right to point this out, even if it means criticising those who are nonetheless doing good work against extremism. Moderate Islam and moderate Quran’ic ‘interpretation’ offer no real bulwark against those who read the text of the Qur’an and take it at face value, as a perfect and divinely authored text. Only by acknowledging that any notion of a divinely authored book is simply false, by accepting the harsh reality that this book is in fact useless (and indeed dangerous) in the modern context, and by embracing human reason and freethinking will the curse of Islamic extremism ultimately be overcome. (my emphasis)

Should we be careful not to demonize groups of people? Of course. But arguing that some cultures do a better job at improving human well-being is perfectly valid and possible. The American Left often has no problem arguing that it is our culture that leads to eating disorders, or stigmatizes the poor or homosexuals, or “commercializes” other cultures. It may be lack of nerve or lack of sufficient time thinking about it, but their failure to recognize that certain cultures are the cause of the cultural practices that lead to greater suffering is dangerous and insensitive. Real compassion is a concern for the well-being of the people that suffer within these cultures, not for the feelings of those that buttress the continuation of avoidable misery.

The Wisdom of Silence

August 24, 2010 12 comments

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. 

      Mark Twain 

When Twain made this remark he probably didn’t have American presidents in mind, but it captures an important lesson in an unintended way. Of course, Twain meant that if you’re a fool and you speak, your intellect will be more obvious to others than if you kept your mouth shut. Presidents often aren’t fools (yes, I did just write that) but speaking out even with wise words may be a foolish move. 

Over at The Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog, the writer, while staking out an odd position on gay marriage (one I happen to disagree with), observes that “for presidents, words are political actions.”

What would have been the actual political consequences of a decision by Barack Obama to come out in favour of gay marriage in the past year and a half? I don’t think there can be any doubt that such a move would have re-politicised an issue that, remarkably, has become steadily less partisan in recent years. Presidents can’t simply speak their minds. For presidents, words are political actions. A president who voices an opinion without considering the political consequences is acting irresponsibly. Presidents’ voiced opinions about social justice are very sharply constrained by whether voicing those opinions is likely to advance their visions of social justice at that political moment. And that means that presidents’ spoken views on such questions may lag far behind the pace of progressive opinion, and may become much less progressive when they are in power than they were before they were elected.

I happen to believe that Obama speaking out in favor of gay marriage would be beneficial to the cause (and would certainly put him on the right side of history), but it’s not preposterous to think that the opposite effect would result. There is no question that it would further politicize the issue just when a majority of Americans now believe in full marriage rights for gays and lesbians. 

On August 11th Matthew Yglesias wrote a post arguing that often presidential leadership can be counterproductive. He was talking about immigration, but this clearly applies to all issues. He was piggybacking off of Ezra Klein’s post on Francis Lee’s book Beyond Ideology which argues that “presidential positions” increase the partisanship on issues.

[The] American people — and the media — expect a lot of bully pulpit leadership. But that bully pulpit leadership polarizes the other party against the initiative, even when the messaging is effective.

Grasping this dynamic is key to understanding the wisdom of President Obama in not offering his full opinion of the Islamic center near Ground Zero. If anyone has any doubts of the effect, notice how the issue became more polarized when he just commented on the constitutionality of it. This isn’t to say that presidents shouldn’t ever speak out on controversial issues; it is to only notice that “A president who voices an opinion without considering the political consequences is acting irresponsibly.”

Given that, I think it’s unfair for writers on the left, right, and center to blast President Obama for being cowardly for not commenting on the wisdom of the choice or to give his personal opinion. Clive Crook’s latest FT column is a perfect illustration of this. This expands on his previous blog post on what Crook thinks Obama should have said. Of course, all this presumes Obama is, in fact, in favor of the mosque and thinks it is wise. If he thinks it is unwise and insensitive, does Crook still think it’d be unifying? Lee’s research suggests that had Obama spoken out by praising the wisdom of the mosque it would have made the polarization of the issue even worse. If he strongly argued that equating this mosque and Sufi Islam with the Islamic fanatics that attacked the US is completely irrational he would have been skewered for being insensitive to the 9/11 families. 

Presidents’ words also have effects diplomatically. Had Obama given too much sympathy for the sentiments of the 9/11 families by saying that it isn’t completely irrational to feel disgust at putting a mosque so close to the site of a horrendous attack by Islamic terrorists, how would that have played with our Muslim allies? To not consider the unintended consequences would be ill-advised. 

None of this is to argue that presidents shouldn’t take politically unpopular or politically dangerous stands if strong principles are at stake. Commentators just need to recognize the possible effects of a president’s words; after all, a president speaking out may be counterproductive to justice or diplomatic goals and these effects aren’t necessarily going to run in the same direction. Crook or Krauthammer or whoever can plausibly argue that the president should take a stand that they agree with because it is the right thing to do, but to argue that it is cowardly not to or that it would be “unifying” if he did is disingenuous or foolish – on this they’d be better off remaining silent. 



(image: abc news)

Religious Freedom Trumps Our Feelings, ctd

August 22, 2010 3 comments

Over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, Patrick Appel posts a reader response to his initial post on “Atheists Vs The Mosque.” Here is the reader’s letter in full:

I think it needs to be said that many of us atheists part way with the louder atheists out there when it comes to Islam or other blanket condemnations of religious people.
Though I agree with 90% of what the “new athiests” say in regards to belief and doubt, the movement will never amount to anything, because they ostracize way too many like-minded individuals. Fair enough I suppose, because most atheists are happy not belonging to a group. But I have to ask myself what do Harris and Coyne wish to accomplish with their arguments? Even if they are 100% correct, what is the best case scenario from blaming moderate Muslims and for completely demonizing a people who, from my experiences in Turkey, are by and large peaceful people (or else we’d see jihadists everywhere).
There is no question that fundamentalist Islam is a problem, and addressing it pragmatically is the only solution.  Moderate Muslims are the only ones that will be effective in promoting a change, and trying to shame them seems completely impractical.
You can not fight unreason face-to-face with pure reason and expect to get the results you want. As an atheist in the South, I deal with this on a daily basis with Christianists, who, in my opinion, pose a much greater threat to our country than Islam. Inciting them has never been a practical solution to dealing with them.
The new atheists initial arguments were exciting to me, because I saw it encouraging closeted atheists to come out; however, it has devolved into a religion bashing group if the comments sections for the big websites are anything to go by.  Christianity got at least one thing right, “Though shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”.

I sent back a letter of my own with a few edits:

I think it needs to be said that many of us [homosexuals] part way with [the louder gays] out there when it comes to most Americans or other blanket condemnations of [full civil rights opponents].

Though I agree with 90% of what the [“new queers”] say in regards to [marriage and civil rights], the movement will never amount to anything, because they ostracize way too many like-minded individuals. Fair enough I suppose because most [queers] are happy not belonging to a group. But I have to ask myself what do [Sullivan] and [Lt. Choi] wish to accomplish with their arguments? Even if they are 100% correct, what is the best case scenario from blaming [the Human Rights Campaign] and for completely demonizing a people who, from my experiences in [Massachusetts], are by and large peaceful people (or else we’d see [bigots] everywhere).

There is no question that fundamentalist [bigotry] is a problem, and addressing it pragmatically is the only solution. Moderate [civil union proponents] are the only ones that will be effective in promoting a change, and trying to shame them seems completely impractical.

You can not fight unreason face-to-face with pure reason and expect to get the results you want. […] The new [queers] initial arguments were exciting to me, because I saw it encouraging closeted [gays] to come out; however, it has devolved into a [HRC/Democratic Party/religion/President Obama/moderate] bashing group if the comments sections for the big websites are anything to go by. [Andrew Sullivan] got at least one thing right, [“This is your liberal media ladies and gentlemen: totally partisan, interested in the truth only if it advances their agenda, and devoid of any balls whatsoever”.]

I actually shared my own issues with Harris’s piece here, but the reader and Patrick Appel just fail to grapple with the critique Harris is actually making. I hope my little bit of creative editing will make some of the reader’s fallacies and double standards more obvious. Here I’ll plunge a little deeper into what I find objectionable in the reader’s response.
He writes,

Though I agree with 90% of what the “new athiests” say in regards to belief and doubt, the movement will never amount to anything, because they ostracize way too many like-minded individuals.

This is one of the more common criticisms I hear of the “new atheists.” The problem with this argument is that no one has actually provided any evidence that it is true. There are a couple of dubious premises I see. First, if “the movement will never amount to anything” how does he square that with the idea that it is being counter-productive. Doesn’t he also notice that the movement has already generated quite a bit of talk and has attracted support from a large number of prominent scientists and thinkers? Also, even if someone doesn’t self-identify as a “new atheist” (or even an atheist (Sam Harris himself doesn’t like to)) the idea is to promote certain goals like reason and science and to break the taboo that religion can’t be criticized – I already see that taboo as beginning to crumble.


These “like-minded individuals” also aren’t so “like-minded” if they think moderate faith is entirely benign – if the “loud atheists'” message is uncomfortable to them, well, that’s the idea.  Finally, the implication that “new atheists'” message will somehow crowd-out other pro-science, pro-reason, anti-fundementalist messages is completely lacking in evidence and actually seems a bit ridiculous, especially considering that this reader thinks “the movement will never amount to anything.”

But I have to ask myself what do Harris and Coyne wish to accomplish with their arguments? Even if they are 100% correct, what is the best case scenario from blaming moderate Muslims and for completely demonizing a people[…] (my emphasis)

This just screams, “not interested in truth” to me. He says he agrees with “90%” of the new atheists ideas, but presumably the 10% for him includes valuing truth even if offends the sentiments of many. It appears the reader missed one of the core messages in that 10% he rejects. Not sure what the 90% is. If it’s just that he doesn’t believe in God, he’s almost entirely missed the point of Harris’s writings – his 90-10 split should be reversed. Also, Harris and Coyne don’t “demonize” an entire people or blame moderate Muslims for 9/11 or terrorism. I’ve never read or heard that from either of them anywhere. They may blame moderates for failing to adequately confront the reality of terrorism inspired by Islam. Is it really demonization to challenge moderate Muslims to look at their own scriptures and question them on the messages found in them? Is it demonization to notice that the Islamic doctrine of jihad (not invented by extremists, but found in the messages of the Koran and hadith) has dangerous effects on our world.

There is no question that fundamentalist Islam is a problem, and addressing it pragmatically is the only solution.  Moderate Muslims are the only ones that will be effective in promoting a change, and trying to shame them seems completely impractical.

Harris has actually acknowledged on multiple occasions that he’s not the best ambassador to Muslims communities, and has called for tactical alliances when dealing with larger problems such as terrorism. How Harris or Coyne or anyone else is preventing moderates from being effective isn’t said. I’m not positive shame is the best approach to get them to confront the objectionable realities of many in their religion, but it’s at least possibly one approach. If someone, reasonably, feels that moderates aren’t being loud enough now with all the coddling going on, maybe it’s time for a little shame. Here’s the type of shame Harris is advocating – something he calls “conversational intolerance.”

Good and civil people are made to feel shame for unthinkingly using words like “fag” and for treating homosexuals as undeserving of full civil rights and respect – is it obvious to anyone that shame didn’t help nudge people to behave better? Just two days earlier this video was on The Daily Dish.

I’m not prepared to say it’s a bad thing to shame moderates into being more outspoken condemning women’s rights abuses in the Muslim world or acknowledging that, for example, close to 1 and 3 British Muslims would prefer to live under sharia law, or just admitting the horrors found in their holy texts. What exactly will it take to get moderates of most religions to notice that religion can actually have negative effects? Just for the record Harris was mostly trying to get “well-intentional liberals” to discuss the realities of much in Islam despite the demagoguing of the political right.

You can not fight unreason face-to-face with pure reason and expect to get the results you want.

Well, if you wanted a good example of condescending to those you wish to persuade, look no further. No one is  advocating being impolite in every circumstance, just honest.

The new atheists initial arguments were exciting to me, because I saw it encouraging closeted atheists to come out; however, it has devolved into a religion bashing group if the comments sections for the big websites are anything to go by.

Let me quote Jerry Coyne responding to Phil Plait’s talk that similarly criticized the “dickish” attitude of many new atheists.

He surely has instances of “bad behavior” in mind—indeed, he says so.  And yes, you can find them in the comments section of several atheist websites.  But I find the claim of pervasive bad behavior unconvincing. If you look at the major voices of the skeptical movement, at least those that I read regularly, I think you’ll see very, very few cases of opponents being called “brain damaged” or “baby rapers”.  In general, the discourse is not about name-calling, but about facts and rational argument.

I don’t really think the comment sections of atheist websites are really going to sway Muslims one way or the other. All this gripping about tone is mostly just a way for critics of Harris, Hitchens, and others to ignore their actual arguments.


These types of criticisms always seem to be so concerned with the ability of the new atheists to persuade. Maybe I’m going out on a limb, but it seems more likely these critics don’t want the new atheists to persuade. Continue to be cognizant of the fact that these critics never provide evidence to their claims that these loud atheists are hurting the cause. I’d don’t have much evidence that they’re helping much, but it seems unlikely they are hurting the cause considering that more people, not less, are identifying as nonreligious since the Harris and others first started speaking out. This graph was at The Daily Dish just today.
Religion_switching
And many people are already familiar with the declining rates of religion in America.


Harris and others are pointing out that certain Islamic beliefs conflict with many of our Western values. He’s also trying to counter many well-meaning political figure’s and intellectual’s notion that Islam had nothing to do with 9/11.

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.

I’m fine with Park51, I think living out our liberal values by allowing the community center is more important than any message it may send to many Muslims that “liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.” But the suggestion that Harris is demonizing moderates or that atheists are hurting the cause of reason are faith-based beliefs – that is, they are utterly lacking in evidence.

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)

Nice Work FBI

From the A.V.Club I learn that:

The FBI has arrested the Virginia man who posted a “warning” to South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker on a radical Muslim website back in April, after he told federal agents of his plans to travel overseas and join a terrorist group. Zachary Chesser, described as a 20-year-old “university dropout,” was apprehended while attempting to board a plane at a New York airport despite being on a no-fly list, after which he spoke at length with FBI agents about his connection to al-Qaeda associate group Al-Shabaab, which he intended to join in Kenya or Somalia.

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