Reviews for The School of Homer

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mosques in America, Part Two

I used to listen to Dr. Peikoff's podcasts every week, but as with much else, just haven't found the time as of late. I did find a transcript of his thoughts involving the Ground Zero Mosque situation here, and I recommend that anyone concerned over this issue read them carefully.

Having pondered the implications of Dr. Peikoff's analysis, I find it necessary to clarify my previous comments. I will say that Dr. Peikoff brings up an important point about the legal differences involved between a state of war and a state of peace, even in a free republic such as ours. But, his claims about property rights are, I think, mistaken in a couple of important respects. First let me quote the relevant passages:

"Let’s start with property rights. Property rights are limited and they are contextual. You cannot do anything you want with property even though it is yours, not if its ramifications objectively entail a threat to the rights of others. You can’t build a bomb in your home. You can’t even build a big bonfire in your backyard legitimately because the principle of rights is that property rights are a derivative of life as the standard and there can be no right to threaten anyone’s life nor indeed to threaten anyone’s property. Second, rights are contextual. In any situation where metaphysical survival is at stake all property rights are out. You have no obligation to respect property rights. The obvious, classic example of this is, which I’ve been asked a hundred times, you swim to a desert island — you know, you had a shipwreck — and when you get to the shore, the guy comes to you and says, “I’ve got a fence all around this island. I found it. It’s legitimately mine. You can’t step onto the beach.” Now, in that situation you are in a literal position of being metaphysically helpless. Since life is the standard of rights, if you no longer can survive this way, rights are out. And it becomes dog-eat-dog or force-against force."

"Now, let me give you an analogy if it’s not self-evident. Japanese strike pearl Harbor. We declare war. Japan, the Japanese, are then given a large spread of land in Pearl Harbor to build a temple celebrating — I don’t care what. The Japanese superiority or Shinto peacefulness or — I don’t care what. Now, if you can even conceive of that as justified because of “property rights,” then I say you haven’t a clue what property rights, or individualism, or Objectivism is saying. Because what permitting that amounts to is “Roll over. Kick me. Kill me. I have nothing to say.”

"If someone down the street lobbied grenades into your harm which you were renting. And the police wouldn’t do a thing. And you fled. And he buys the property and builds the Church of Home Bombing on your land. Would you say, “Oh! Well, it’s his. It’s his property.” And don’t think that’s a false analogy."

First of all, the island example is a reference to a specialized state of nature. No government exists and for the purposes of the thought experiment, only two men exist, one of whom claims to own everything and casts the other to a certain death. I do not see how or why Dr. Peikoff digressed into such an inapplicable "example," except as a way to transition to the claim that metaphysical survival is currently at stake in our war with Islamic fanatics in the Middle East. Even for that limited purpose, it seems so disanalagous to me as to promote confusion and befuddlement. We do not live in a state of nature, and Islamic fanatics do not hold the position of the "island owner," in the world in general and not in our own state of civilized society.

Property, which in all liberal and enlightenment political theory pre-dates the creation of government, can only be curtailed by one principle--that of initiating force against the rights of others. In order to get to that in the case of the proposed Islamic Cultural Center (or any Islamic building or mosque) we need to establish that those proposing the building are part of a larger movement in league with overseas fanatics trying to kill us, or that they are domestic criminals conspiring to do the same on their own. If either of these is the case, then I'm sure they are being investigated and will be arrested and prosecuted. If they are not, if they are simply American muslims with no intent to break any laws and not in any way leagued with those against whom we are fighting wars, then the connection to initiating force against the rights of others is extremely tenuous at best.

I completely agree with Dr. Peikoff in terms of our tactics and strategy in fighting the war we are engaged in, but our domestic policies--even if congress declares a state of war to exist--including property rights, do not fly out the window. Property rights are "contextual" only in the sense I have identified. If one is using their property to actually assault the rights of others--by building a bomb for instance, or conspiring to kill people--then yes, their property, like their persons and in some instances (i.e. treason), their lives, are subject to confiscation and forfeit under the established due process of law, which our republic recognizes as fundamental to the individual civil rights of all citizens. The only way in which those rights could be plausably suspended under war powers would require actual invasion and domestic warfare.

While a state of normal peace exists in the jurisdiction involved, then the laws ought to continue to operate as usual--even if the republic is fighting overseas wars. This has been our policy in every single war we have ever fought. Dr. Peikoff appeals to the founding fathers--and rightly so--but even when they faced war directly on American soil--in the Revolution and the War of 1812--they did not engage in wholesale destruction of rights. The only possible exception to this, it might be claimed, concerns the property of loyalists during the Revolution, but in that case their legal status was seen as that akin to that of traitors. But even then, they generally were not harmed in their person to the point of death, and their property only tended to be confiscated when they actively fought on the side of the British, or abandoned the country to reside (temporarily or not) in Great Britain or its loyal possessions. Even then, a number of very prominent founders--Alexander Hamilton and John Jay for instance--fought legal battles on behalf of Loyalists after the revolution seeking recompense.

The Japanese example Dr. Peikoff gives is also a false analogy. The governments of Iran and Syria are not trying to build this cultural center--if they were then I would agree with Dr. Peikoff wholeheartedly. They are, from as best I can tell, private American citizens, and are thus entitled to certain rights we would not protect in the case of the Iranian regime. Had the Japanese government tried to build anything in Hawaii, then yes of course, they would never have been permitted to do so. But, certainly, the rights of hostile governments and private American citizens are not, in any respect, the same. Also, I'm not sure why he chose to compare the Islamic cultural center to a situation that never occurred when World War II provides a far more similar example in Roosevelt's internment of private American citizens perceived by the Commander in Chief to be both potentially dangerous and potentially in danger. Here the government suspended not only property rights in time of war, but also physically confined humans with no due process of law. Dr. Peikoff's answer to the ground zero mosque situation seems far more in line with that actual historical precedent.

As to his final example, he vaguely says "someone" lobs grenades into your property, then when you flee, buys your property and builds a center to celebrate the act of throwing grenades onto the property of others. Again, I'm not sure why he chooses to resort to these non-existant and seemingly absurdist examples. Is he suggesting that the people involved in the culutral center were in league or are in league with Islamic terrorists and their international sponsors with whom we are at war? If so, his concern ought to be not with what buildings they might erect, but with why they are walking the streets free to begin with. If he's not suggesting such a literal connection, then I'm at something of a loss as to what point he's actually trying to make. A man who literally attacks you ought to be counter-attacked. Someone who aids and abetts that person is guilty also. Anyone else, even if they claim to belong to the same large religious group, must be presumed innocent until they do something to demonstrate that they are dangerous, treasonous, or otherwise unworthy of life in a free republic. I certainly have no problem if the government decides to surveil and investigate all of the people involved in this project, but until something concrete is produced, their various rights ought to be respected, even if those of us who are not muslims and disagree with all of their opinions decide they are dangerous cranks.

Governmental power is already expansive and troubling enough without advocating the suspension of normal legal procedures on American soil when the courts still operate freely and easily. And it could just as easily be turned on any other "dangerous" minority that those in power decide to persecute. I cannot advocate such power being used by the likes of those who are currently (or may in the future be) likely to use it. As much as an Islamic Cultural Center a couple blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood strikes me as insensitive, bizarre, and jerkish, I need to see something more concrete as to these specific projectors before I could countenance such state action domestically. If we're not going to try to win the war overseas we can hardly expect to succeed waging it among ourselves here at home.


I received a good comment, which I have pasted below. I will address it's arguments here as opposed to creating a "part three" on this issue.

"Some counter arguments that Objectivists are raising to your line of argumentation?

1) Islam is more than just a religion. It has a political/military ideology built into it the aim of which is conquest and subjugation.

2) Organized Islam is a political organization dedicated to the overthrow of the US Constitution.

3) Mosques are part of organized Islam and therefore should either be highly scrutinized or banned completely during time of war.

4) 70-80% of all North American mosques are stocked with Jihad literature originating from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is financing a world wide Jihad movement including world wide mosque construction and propaganda dissemination.

5) Islamic immigration is extremely dangerous in the context of our egalitarian Leftist multiculturalist welfare state. Large populations of Muslims in Western nations ensure that Westerners live in FEAR of Muslim violence. Google up Molly Norris and see her fate. That could easily be you one day if you say the wrong thing and the US gov't will throw you under a bus.

Read this to get a sense of the problem we are facing. Admittedly it is from a Conservative but his analysis strikes me as far more realistic than yours and other similar Objectivists:"
What does "more than just a religion" mean precisely? Roman Catholicism has all sorts of political and aesthetic elements, is that "more than just a religion" as well? All religions contain elements that go way beyond theories and suppositions on the origin of the universe, man, God and the like. So when one says something like "more than just a religion," what do they mean? Religions are fairly comprehensive, if fundamentally irrational, systems of thinking about the universe and living in the world. And no religion that I'm aware of can be called more anti-life than another--they all advocate abandonment of reason and living for someone else or an alternate mystical reality or both.

Conquest and subjugation are political aims that are impossible without state support, sanction, and backing. I think there is no doubt that Muslims historically and now, in certain regions, have been bent on extending their ideology through conquest and warfare. That, however, does not change the state of peace in the United States proper and the ability of the courts to function freely right now in the American republic. Until that situation changes, there is no immediate emergency to justify a suspension of the legal system. To pretend that this building project is that emergency will empower any future government to define "emergency war powers" so broadly as to seriously undermine all the freedoms and liberties we have left. I'd rather risk the minor trivialities associated with a building everyone will sneer at as opposed to creating a potentially apocalyptic legal precedent.
What is "organized Islam?" There is no such thing. There is no central hierarchy in Islam to issue commands--NONE. One reason it is so difficult to figure out where some Muslims stand is related to this fact. Parts of the Islamic community, both here and abroad, are undoubtedly in favor of overthrowing the U.S. Constitution, which I happen to think is a terrible goal. But means are an important distinquishing feature. The U.S. Constitution contains the legal method of its own overthrow. If I or anyone else worked to put it into effect--that is amend it fundamentally or call a new convention to rewrite it--would my rights be worth less then someone else's? There is a difference morally between a person who might want the U.S. Constitution altered or abandoned but who merely argues that point and does not attempt to violently affect that outcome, and a person fighting a real and deadly war to change the system with bullets and blood.
In order to broadly paint all muslims into a conspiracy to affect such an end--violently--one has to offer more proof and evidence than simply claiming something that is historically false--that Islam has ever been unified or cohesive. I cannot make this point more clearly and one only needs to read Bernard Lewis on the history of Islam (though having lived in Saudi Arabia, this is easily observable as well) to know it--Islam is not in any sense organized. Individual Imams can either be full-blown jihadists or they can expel jihadists from their congregations and cooperate with law enforcement. If you think western busts of Islamic conspiracies could have occurred without tips and assistance from muslims, you're living in a fantasy land. As a person with at least some muslim friends, I find it beyond ignorant of reality to merely assert things about a complicated situation that conflates those who actually break laws and wage wars, and those who do not. That is a real and important--fundamentally important--difference.
War time--which we're not technically in, no state of war ever being declared--does not allow the innocent to be trampled under foot, unless an actual battle is under way with an invading force. The laws of nations and the laws of war are rather clear on this for any sort of regime--but as citizens of a free republic, we ought to be even more cautious of the exercise of any powers associated with a state of war. Building a mosque, to worship peacefully, violates the rights of no one. The presence of jihadist literature from Saudi Arabia is troubling, but so was the Communist Manifesto all over the western world (it calls for international revolution). I don't know where the 70-80% figure comes from, but lets say it is perfectly accurate, in fact, lets say the true number is 100% just to make it easier. So what? What is the context? I can go buy a reader of translations of Osama bin Laden's writings and speeches right now, what does that prove? The mere presence of jihadist literature means very little.
In order to establish an actual conspiracy to commit actual acts, one needs to establish that this literature, which actually exhorts people to war in the United States, is being used by the Imam to encourage his followers to commit real crimes. But not every Imam is using jihadist lit to exhort his flock to war--or if they are they are not doing a very good job, since the numbers involved in this war are relatively very small. The fact that such literature--call it propaganda if that is more accurate--exists means what? Are we to ban literature? Why? Are we afraid of foreign propaganda? Why?
Jihadist literature from Saudi Arabia is silly nonsense, and I have not met a muslim in the United States who doesn't agree with that (though I'm sure they exist). And I don't think--I should disclose that my best friend is Persian and a muslim--that my friends are lying to my face in order to prevent me from getting to the bottom of their secret conspiratorial designs to overthrow the government. Most muslims who emigrate to the United States do so because they cannot stand the repressive societies they were born into and want to become Americans. The 9/11 hijackers were men who did not emigrate to the United States; they were born and bred in jihadist congregations in the Middle East (most in Saudi Arabia) and trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before being deployed into the west to carry out their despicable mission. They are abnormal and not, in any sense, representative of anything approaching a significant portion of the muslims who come to the United States (or those who do not).
As for Saudi Arabia, having lived there for three and a half years, we need to not pretend that the Saudis are worth fearing. We live in the most powerful country in the history of the planet that can, in a moment, wipe the entire muslim world out of existence, so we need to calm down a little bit. This isn't to say there are no dangers and no threats--there certainly are both in spades--but neither is about to result in the destruction of the republic. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an inept monarchy that buys domestic tranquilty through a combination of not taxing its citizenry and letting religionists have full reign in domestic governance. This has created a peculiar society that is very hands off in some respects and very oppressive in many others. But the Saudi regime is perpetually worried about its vulnerability to any number of discontents from below and foreign toppling from abroad (the main object of that latter fear is now Iran). The Saudi government is likely not behind the international dissemination of any revolutionary literature, because they are equally fearful of such activity in their own country. But the Saudi royal family is massive (tens of thousands of people) and the domestic religionists are quite powerful and quasi-independent, so I have no doubt that they are the ones disseminating propaganda. But the proper response to propaganda is to simply point out how it's wrong and move on.
As for the issuing of fatwas against American citizens, I've already indicated that I think the government should simply bomb those Imams who attempt to harm Americans into the dust. This particular Imam lives in Yemen, a bizarre vendetta non-state, so it should be very little problem. But, I fail to see how the fatwa of a Yemeni Imam translates to oppressing American citizens for his actions because they also happen to be muslims. Are they trying to carry out the fatwa? If so, then those individuals ought to be dealt with. If not, then they are as innocent as you are. There is no world-wide pan-Islamic conspiracy. Nationalism, ethinicity, secularism, and a wide variety of other schisms prevent the world's muslims from conspiring about benign things, let alone anything nefarious. This doesn't mean that radical Islamists aren't a dangerous threat, but they are not the most dangerous threat in the history of the world, and they are not unbeatable. The only thing that could ever give them victory would be our own surrender to their way of doing things. They, not we, persecute non-violent ideas and actions with violence. They, not we, condemn enitre swathes of the world to death.
As for my fate should some Imam decide to issue a fatwa against me, I'd like to see how that effort would work to be quite honest. I don't find radical Islamists scary, particularly not in my own country. I don't know why this cartoonist felt in necessary to go into hiding and alter her identity. If she though it was necessary to her survival then that is sad and troubling, but I would have suggested to her that it was not necessary. Islamic hitmen are not hiding amongst us all the time, waiting to carry out the innumerable fatwas of Yemeni psychotics. If they were, there would be far more stories about dead westerners. That being said, there are already too many stories about fatwas and dead westerners. But the solution to Yemeni Imams who threaten people is not to crack the heads of American muslims--it's to crack his head and the heads of those like him. If any American is in league with such people, there is a justice system set up to deal with their ilk. But it is important to not lose our own heads and to act contrary to principle when the situation doesn't warrant such measures. A state of war, even, requires actual fighting on the ground before the normal course of justice can be legitimately altered or suspended. Such is obviously not the case at the moment. Even in far more serious wars, our republic has been able to maintain calm and persevere, as we must do now more than ever given the intense dangers involved both at home and abroad (not the least of which emanates from the government itself).

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.