The Mosque Issue

I couldn’t help it. After reading about this issue, I had to weigh in. As usual, we can count on various media organizations to be extremely unhelpful in guiding our thinking. Here’s Matt Yglesias with a pretty insensitive post about an issue people obviously think is important and nuanced (he claims conservatives are crazy, end of story). At least he linked to this article, which is pretty carefully written.

There are a lot of angles on this (try to block the mosque?, what do the victims think?, what does Obama think?, etc.), and almost all of them involve trying to make people angry with various claims of hypocrisy, and in fact, many of them have succeeded in getting me to be very frustrated. Still, I want to try and remain calm and look at some points for both sides.

First, debates that involve claims of discrimination are really difficult. In debates about our electrical grid, or where to send troops, or how many battleships to buy, its fairly easy to see where argument stops and ad hominem begins. This is because the issue being discussed is separate from motivation. A politician might be motivated to argue in favor of buying more battleships because his district has a shipyard, and thus his motivation might be compromised. But this is easy to distinguish from the policy question: should we or should we not buy more battleships? However, in issues that involve discrimination, bias, or insensitivity (and here I’m including insensitivity toward those who don’t want the mosque near ground zero), motivation IS THE ISSUE ITSELF. It’s very hard to keep the discussion civil when the issue itself is the moral quality of the other side. Also its doubly hard because at issue are feelings. 9/11 victim families and others just FEEL violated by the construction of this mosque.

Still, here are some ways to clarify things. First, as many have noted, there is a difference between legality and desirability. Legally, the mosque can be built. Of course. What people want to know is: should it be built? Why can’t the builders of the mosque build somewhere else? Do they have to build on the proposed site even though they know it will really upset many people? Do the people who are upset have legitimate grievances or are they just opportunistic?

The next question is, why does the mosque damage the respect we should have for ground zero. I don’t know if I see the argument. The mosque is two blocks away, and as the above article says, there are many things that are close by. There is a strip club three blocks away, does that impugn the memory of those who die?

A sophisticated anti-mosque person will say no. The mosque, they will say, is offensive because of the relationship it has to the 9/11 attacks; a relationship that the strip club doesn’t have. But now I get lost.

One way I could find my way again would be if it turned out that the mosque builders had a desire to provoke people, which is certainly a possibility, contra liberal commentators. An offer was made for them to build elsewhere but they turned it down. Are they just trying to use tolerance to throw a muslim identity into the face of 9/11 victims (again, they are legally allowed to be provocative, but is that the sensitive thing to do)? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The organization building the mosque is part of a group that tries to promote tolerance, and I think they rightly see the mosque as a bastion of moderation and a refutation of extremism. Daisy Khan, exec director of the Muslim society says this: “It will also serve as a major platform for amplifying the silent voice of the majority of Muslims who have nothing to do with extremist ideologies. It will counter the extremist momentum.” (see here for source). Remember, the question here isn’t whether this mosque will ACTUALLY overturn extremism — it probably won’t — but rather, is its mission a genuine one? I see no reason not to take Ms. Khan at her word.

But if the mosque builders have benign intentions, then I have to consider another argument, which is that the 9/11 attacks were done “in the name” of Islam. If the problem is the connection between 9/11 and the mosque and not the fact that the mosque is Muslim, then it seems that prejudice is not at work but a benign and understandable desire to avoid reminders of the 9/11 attacks at ground zero. Here again though, I’m not convinced. Why does the mosque have any connection with 9/11 at all? Yes the hijackers operated “in the name” of Islam, but did they not hijack that religion just as much as they hijacked the planes? All sorts of evil people can appropriate the names of legitimate institutions to do harm, but why should we turn our backs on those worthwhile institutions? The KKK claims to act on behalf of all white people just as the Black Panthers claim to act on behalf of African Americans. But the KKK does not speak for me, regardless of what THEY say, and would be troubled if I were not allowed to open a store near the site of a lynching because the lynchers acted in the name of whiteness.

So, just because the 9/11 terrorists took the good name of Islam to do their evil does not mean that all Muslims everywhere must pay the price.


2 Responses to “The Mosque Issue”

  1. 1 Max Downing
    August 17, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Great post!

    “Yes the hijackers operated “in the name” of Islam, but did they not hijack that religion just as much as they hijacked the planes?”

    Couldn’t agree with you more. A deliberate act of hatred in the name of faith is still a deliberate act of hatred. If Ms. Khan believes what she’s said and the Muslim community truly wishes this mosque to be a beacon of hope and a gesture of trust, I applaud their bravery.

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