Monday, September 20, 2010

Mosque Construction in the United States of America

So I have been incredibly busy in trying to finish drafting my dissertation in time to hit the ground running in an academic position in the Fall of 2011 and not paying much beyond peripheral attention to current events. But I have seen that one of the stories taking prominence among Objectivists and the country at large is the question of mosque construction near the site where the World Trade Center Towers once stood in lower Manhattan. Two questions are at play in this story as I see it; the first is whether or not people in the United States have the right to construct buildings where they propagate their belief systems (I would add on land that they own, but there are no private land owners in Manhattan--which is an abomination but a subject for another day--the New York City Port Authority owns all of Manhattan) in Manhattan; if the answer is yes--and I will argue that it is--then the next question is whether or not these particular Muslims could, in good faith, really think the construction of Islamic Cultural Center is really in the best of taste so close to such a site only a decade after the worst massacre on American soil since the nineteenth century.

As to the first question. If American Muslims cannot build mosque's in the United States then no mystical religionists ought to be allowed to construct any places of worship. Islam is no more inherently violent than Christianity or Judaism--both of which were at points in their past followed by incredibly violent fanatics. Read about the first crusade and then tell me that you want Catholics building churches near you. Of course, we live in the present, not the 11th-12th centuries. But no matter how many crazy fanatics who exist in the world trying to consistently apply their war-like understanding of jihad to us, we live in a society of individual rights. We do not condemn followers of Islam who, like followers of nearly every other organized religion in the world, are inconsistent hypocrites and live normal non-offensive lives as law-abiding citizens of our republic. We condemn those who actually do, or conspire to do, actual wrong. If the people investing in this particular cultural center are criminals or plotting criminal activity or worse, conspiring with our enemies overseas, then sure, investigate them, arrest them, prosecute them, and toss them in jail. But to condemn them before that and disallow their rights to lease land and construct their own private buildings upon it is absurd.

Having lived in an Islamic country--and one of the most fanatical--for three and a half years, I don't have any especial sympathy for Islam as a belief system. It is built entirely upon the principal of submission and sacrifice of oneself to the community and to God. But that is hardly unique. It was spread through conquest initially, but once Islamic armies ran into actual resistance they became the conquered and converted people as Christians do--proselytizing them. Since there is not central command of interpretation in Islamic culture, individual Imams have a tremendous amount of power. When they abuse that to issue death threats against enemies of the faith, they are merely reenacting Urban II's call for the first crusade in 1095. For that they ought to be condemned, and if such fatwas are ever perceived as actual threats on our security or that of our citizens, then I have no problem with my government killing barbaric mystics. But a war against overseas opponents, who are Muslims and who act from an ideology built around the teachings of Islam, does not translate to outlawing mosques in the United States. When Washington told the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island that "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoke of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support," he wasn't trying to secure Jewish support politically--they were a small minority and he was unassailable politically. He was attempting to describe why Americans had a "right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation." Now where in the world do governments prevent zany, bizarre, or even potentially dangerous religious weirdos from building their own places of congregation and worship? It is not the United States, nor should it ever be. Good god, even the CPUSA was permitted to peacefully propagate an ideology explicitly devoted to the destruction of the government and individual rights and that was actually allied with a massive murderous totalitarian regime which was also our greatest enemy for over forty years.

Now, the other question about propriety. I happen to think it's probably not the best idea in the world to select that particular location in Manhattan to build a cultural center for the same culture of those who butchered thousands of innocents down the street ten years ago. Was there a Japanese cultural center built at Pearl Harbor in 1951? A German cultural center in Warsaw in 1949? Of course not. But if people had wanted to build them, pay for them, and use them, I would not have opposed their right to do so. I sympathize with those that see this proposed construction as an affront--especially when you consider post-Al Ghazali Islamic culture has nothing much to be proud of intellectually--but there is nothing that can be done short of buying them out or boycotting the facility. Besides, if it turns out that this cultural center is run by and visited by perfectly loyal American Muslims, then it will be no different than any other house of irrational whims that litter the American landscape.

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