Displaying the sort of naivete typical of Northeastern elites, I had assumed the ruckus over the Cordoba House Ground Zero Mosque Islamic Community Center (hereafter called the CHGZMICC) would mostly pass and be forgotten by the time I might sit down and write about it. After all, what could be a more straightforward matter of religious freedom than someone wishing to use private property for religious purposes (provided they comply with zoning laws and pay their taxes—um, scratch that bit about the taxes)? Surely, someone whose notion of property rights is so broad that one can do anything they like on their own property, even if it harms others (e.g., the right to pollute), must also believe that people should be able to practice whatever religion they like on their private property. Surely, someone who feels it is a miscarriage of justice when a court prevents the construction of religious structures on public property would find it a double-miscarriage for the government to prevent the construction of religious structures on private property. Obviously, the notion that the Federal Government should intervene to stop construction of the CHGZMICC would subside after even the most cursory reflection. Sadly, I was wrong. I thought I was pretty open-minded about how closed-minded folks on the right could be, but apparently I have a lot to learn.
Aw, who am I kidding? Of course I expected this, from the conservatives at least. By and large, they stand up for their own rights and freedom, but are blind to the rights and freedom of others (notwithstanding their fondness for “wars of liberation”). This is why they seem unable to distinguish defense attorneys from the defendants they represent (as when Liz Cheney’s Keep America Safe vilified lawyers who had represented detainees), and why they can’t understand organizations like the ACLU that have a curious record of applying Constitutional principles to unpopular causes. They’re happy to ring the property rights bell when it’s their property, but that bell is silent on this issue, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio wants the building currently standing at the future site of the CHGZMICC to be given landmark status as a legal basis for blocking the project. (See, some 9/11 debris hit the building, which makes it sacred. Ground Zero itself is so sacred that it has had to remain a hole in the ground for ten years or so. Likewise, since the 9/11 first responders got some of the dust in their lungs, they are sacred too, which is why the GOP heroically protected them from the Democrats’ attempted 9/11 Health Bill.) They cry “states’ rights” when its their state’s right to ignore the Constitution, but that phrase is taking a (much needed) vacation while they decry the US Government’s lack of intervention. (The rationalization for federal intervention is that 9/11 affected all Americans, so all Americans should have a say on whether or not the mosque gets built.) And the freedom of religion shawl that they wear when they want to put a Ten Commandments monument in a courthouse is made from Spage Age fibers that allow them to give lip service to religious freedom while still saying that Muslims should not be allowed to build the CHGZMICC; e.g., to reconcile his professed support for religious freedom with his desire to block the CHGZMICC’s construction, Rick Lazio risibly claims that “This is not a matter of religion”; Newt Gingrich similarly says, “This is not about religious liberty.”
Of course, opposition to the CHGZMICC does not emanate from a central coherent source—it comes from many disparate, mostly incoherent sources. So, just as it is unfair to lump all Muslims together with the 9/11 hijackers, it would be unfair for me to lump all critics of the CHGZMICC together with the likes of Rick Lazio and Newt Gingrich. The most nuanced opposition to the CHGZMICC comes from the Anti-Defamation League. They acknowledge the legal right of the CHGZMICC’s backers to build it at the proposed site. They call for it to be built elsewhere, though, since it would hurt the feelings of 9/11 families. As Michael Barbaro writes in The New York Times:
Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, [ADL national director Abraham Foxman], a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions.
“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”
Everyone is entitled to feelings that are irrational. The question is whether those feelings should be indulged. Certainly, there is no legal right to demand that others indulge them (and the ADL is not claiming otherwise). But as an ethical matter, would respecting those feelings be the right thing to do (as the ADL is claiming)? That is, far and away, the most subtle question to arise from this debate. I think Paul Krugman’s response gets straight to the point:
So let’s try some comparable cases, OK? It causes some people pain to see Jews operating small businesses in non-Jewish neighborhoods; it causes some people pain to see Jews writing for national publications (as I learn from my mailbox most weeks); it causes some people pain to see Jews on the Supreme Court. So would ADL agree that we should ban Jews from these activities, so as to spare these people pain? No? What’s the difference?
(I would add that some 9/11 families support the CHGZMICC.)
With the partial exception of the ADL, critics of the CHGZMICC conflate Muslims in general with the 9/11 hijackers. Consider the National Republican Trust PAC’s video (which could be mistaken for a Jerry Bruckheimer movie trailer): “On September 11th, they declared war against us, and to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at1 Ground Zero. This ground is sacred. …” Who are “they”? Al-Qaeda, or every Muslim on Earth? (And 13 stories in New York City’s financial district is “monstrous”?) If I’m to believe GOP Trust, every Muslim is issued a balaclava and an AK-47. As a sign at a June protest declared: “All I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”
Of course, the Islamic world is more complex than that. I am not going to trot out the “Islam is a religion of peace” line, but there is definitely a struggle within the religion between moderate and radical elements, and the United States has an impact on that struggle. Unfortunately, our approach so far has lacked tact, and we are doing more to further the cause of radical Islam, by making ourselves a recruitment tool. You could think of our actions as being to Islamic radicals what the “Ground Zero Mosque” is to Republicans on the campaign trail.
As for what might be more tactful, consider the recent flooding in Pakistan: Hard-Line Islam Fills Void in Flooded Pakistan, Floods stir anger at Pakistan government response, Pakistan Vies With Islamists to Aid Flood Victims. We are basically sitting on our asses while “Islamic charities with ties to militant groups” are the only ones helping the flood victims. We’re doing a little bit, but it’s out of step with the hundreds of billions we’ve spent on killing people in the region. There is far more we could be doing, rather than just letting Islamic militants turn the flood into a PR bonanza.
Even though the opponents of the CHGZMICC won’t succeed in stopping it, they are still aiding Islam’s radical elements. As J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami puts it:
What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States as they seek to whip up global jihad than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be.
I wouldn’t normally sink to the level of accusing opponents of helping the terrorists, but the case has to be made in response to the accusation that it’s the other way around, that allowing the CHGZMICC to be built will invite further attacks. They’re welcome to present some evidence that jihadists gain not from the perception that the United States is anti-Muslim, but from the perception that the United States is nice to Muslims.
Were the hijackers’ religious beliefs central to their actions? Sure. But are we going to adopt the principle that if an atrocity is committed in the name of Religion X, then no member of Religion X may build a church near that site? If we did, we’d have to stop Christians from building churches near clinics where pro-lifers have murdered abortion doctors. After the firebombing of a black church by members of the KKK, we would have to stop the congregants from rebuilding their church, on the grounds that it would be an affront to the memories of the victims to allow a Christian church to be built on that site, since the perpetrators were Christian. But we don’t do this. We do not ask that Christian churches not be built in order to protect the feelings of people affected by such violence. Sarah Palin does not tell Christians that building churches is “UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts.”
Some, like Rush Limbaugh, argue that we could use zoning laws to block the construction of the CHGZMICC. From his show:
Zoning laws tell churches where they can and can’t go all the time. There’s a group out there called the Alliance Defense Fund. The last few years they’ve been running all over the country suing cities and counties and states over churches being turned down by zoning boards, and they have not yet won a case, I don’t think. So zoning laws already dictate where you—the First Amendment’s got nothing whatsoever to do with building a church wherever you want to put one.
Actually, as his friends at the ADF could tell him, the First Amendment’s got a lot to do with being able to build a church where you want to. Yes, zoning laws might prevent a church from being built in a particular location, because, say, an area is zoned for office space; however, a church can never legally be denied the right to build strictly by virtue of it being a religious institution, much less on the basis of which religion it is for. (There is at least one instance where a zoning board had a “no church” zone, but I know of no instance where that was not later found to be illegal.)
Anyhow, which side of the issue is he on? In one breath, he’s implying that we should use zoning laws to block the CHGZMICC, and in the next, he’s plugging the ADF, which opposes such uses of zoning laws. (It is true that the Alliance Defense Fund has been “running all over the country suing cities and counties and states”, but in their long list of cases, I found only one case where it involved zoning laws preventing construction of a church; more of their cases involve suing cities, counties, and states for giving rights to gay people or preventing prayer in schools.)
If he does wish to use zoning laws to block the CHGZMICC, can he be more specific? The fact that the facility has a mosque, as opposed to a church or synagogue, is not a legitimate zoning consideration, so he must have something else in mind. Did I miss something, and this is actually going to be Rauf’s Ground Zero Mosque and Dildo Shop?
A typical refrain from CHGZMICC opponents is that Muslims can build their mosque anywhere else, just not “at” Ground Zero, but mosques around the country face opposition too. Perhaps these are just disjoint sets of people? No, as co-chairman of one of the community boards, Michael Connolly writes in a NYT letter to the editor: “The same people who came to our community board meeting in May saying they didn’t oppose the project—just the location—and would support it if it were anywhere else in New York were back again at our July meeting carrying signs that read: ‘We won in Staten Island and we’ll win at ground zero. No mosque.’”
From Laurie Goodstein’s NYT article:
At one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking and noise—the same reasons they might object to a church or a synagogue. But now the gloves are off.
In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law.
I’m as happy as anyone to discredit religions based on what their texts say, but is this a legal basis for interfering with the practice of a religion, that its adherents want to legally impose their religious rules on everyone else? If so, I have some important intelligence: there are religious groups operating within our borders that have already infiltrated our government and started imposing their religious viewpoints on others in ways that oppose the Constitution! We must tear down their houses of worship immediately to prevent further damage!
This would be like
Opponents of the CHGZMICC like similes. Most involve Pearl Harbor—e.g., “Putting a mosque at ground zero is like putting a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor,” or “‘Ground Zero’ Needs a Mosque Like Pearl Harbor Needs A Sushi Stand!”—but some inevitably go the Nazi route. Gingrich says that the CHGZMICC “would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.”2 If putting a mosque near Ground Zero is like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum, then would putting a mosque anywhere else be like putting a Nazi sign next to something other than the Holocaust Museum? Also, Gingrich should commit to who the Nazis are: is it Obama, secularists, or muslims?
The opponents of the CHGZMICC are helping Islamic extremists by perpetuating the myth (or non-myth?) that the United States has a specific bias against Islam and by undermining the efforts of moderate Muslims, and trying to underminine the Constitution by breaking the symmetric treatment it guarantees for different religions. These same people accuse the secularists—the people who feel the government must not show favoritism towards a particular religion—of being on the side of the terrorists, and of being a threat to the American way of life. Ergo they suck.
You liberals might be “correct”, but the conservatives are right. You see, opposing this mosque (and others) does indeed undermine religious freedom, and that’s exactly why we need to oppose it. Since “America was targeted for attack on 9/11 because we are the brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world,” we can protect ourselves by dimming that beacon a bit. We can let Canada or some other country we’ve never heard of be brighter than us for a while—just until this whole terror thing blows over—and the terrorists will go after them instead, like moths to a freedom flame.
Newt Gingrich gets it: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” See, when it comes to religious freedom, the United States should achieve parity with Saudi Arabia. Since the terrorists hate freedom, that will make them love us, thus securing our safety.
What’s so great about the First Amendment, anyway? “But the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution are what makes the US so great.” No, what makes this country great is that we live here. That’s what makes us number one. The Constitution is a living document; i.e., it can die. So, ‘tis but a sandy foundation upon which to build our number oneness. On the other hand, as Confucius say, “No matter where you go, there you are.” When we’re number one because we live here, our bestitude is built upon the bedrock of being a tautology. The logic is irrefudiatable.3
0 Many people are demanding to know where the $100 million for the project is coming from. I’m fine with that demand, so long as the same demand is also made of Catholics and Mormons. For all I know it’s coming straight from King Fahd himself, and if that bothers people, maybe they shouldn’t go out of their way to give him so much of their money.
1 When I first read that the CHGZMICC will be “at” Ground Zero, I thought they meant it would be at Ground Zero together with the shops and whatnot that will go in there eventually, but it is actually two blocks away (though admittedly the site was chosen for its proximity to Ground Zero). Must everything within two blocks of Ground Zero fall under the Ground Zero brand? The Ground Zero Marriott, the American Ground Zero Stock Exchange, St. Peter’s Ground Zero Church, Bed Bath & Ground Zero, the University of Ground Zero, …?
2 Of the Axis powers involved in similes, why do the Italians not make the cut? “Putting a mosque at Ground Zero would be like putting a Catholic church in Ethiopia!” I suppose it’s an imperfect analogy—not nearly as good as the Nazi one.
3 Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” is of itself not worth the noise that it caused. Had she simply said “Oops,” I would have been happy to move on. But as her diction betrays, words were never a significant part of her diet, so expecting her to eat them now would be unreasonable. Comparing herself to Shakespeare, though, “durst make too bold herald of my tongue,” even if it has been a fortnight and odd days.
“‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”
I hate to wee-wee on her parade, but the distinction between forming neologisms with intent and good sense as opposed to mere bunglery is an important one; it is the difference between good medicine and malpractice, if English is a living language. When Shakespeare used “inaudible”, for instance, the audience could probably figure out that he meant “not audible”. And when he used “obscene”, perhaps that was less familiar to the audience, but it was at least straight from Latin.
To be fair, when Sarah Palin wrote “refudiate”—as in, “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate”—most could probably figure out that she meant “repudiate”. So it was peculiar that she corrected herself by deleting her original message and replacing it with a similar one calling on New Yorkers to “refute the Ground Zero mosque plan”. This is paradoxically better and worse English: better because it is English, and worse because it is less likely to communicate what she is trying to say.