Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why Not Twin Mosques?

The subject of this blog is culture and the public function of art, and I generally focus on the New York scene and riff off what's going on here. We've been pretty quiet for awhile, but what better opportunity to get back in the swing of things than a a national debate on a Mosque to be built near the former site of the Twin Towers. A work of architecture devoted to a branch of culture, with a distinct political twist: that is our very bread and butter here at the PL. We always have some political twist as well; in this case, it is safe to say that the political is going to be more primary than in other discussions.

To the enormous consternation of some of my close family and acquaintances, I have said that the mosque should not be built. In that very phrase, and what it means, resides the crux of at least one major misunderstanding that has guided the entire debate. A sad spectacle for a philosopher: two sides, intending to engage one another, and each missing the target through the utter confusion of concepts. What to do, except, we pray, show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

Issue #1: Right and Ought Are Two Different Concepts! Let us begin, then, with the following utterance of the illustrious Mayor Bloomberg, who was said to be on the verge of tears, so ardently did he support the plan to build the Mosque: "We do not honor [the first responders to 9/11's] lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting." So strong, indeed, are the emotions around this issue that my argument may at times devolve into certain tangential points, such as the fact that the "first responders" died trying to put out a fire and rescue people, partly as a result of a badly inadequate communications system; they did not die defending anyone's "rights". Be that as it may... Here in a nutshell is what has caused perhaps 75% of the hysteria and misunderstanding in the debate. To wit: neither I nor anyone I have heard or read about denies that the Cordoba Initiative has the RIGHT to build a mosque on the site in question. "Right" is a legal and constitutional concept, which inscribes in the law certain basic protections that are said to be inherent in the person. Rights protect minorities from majorities, individuals from higher powers, when the majority or power might otherwise ride roughshod over the rest. One of those rights is religious freedom, which by any reasonable interpretation includes the right to build houses of worship. There are limitations to every right, of course, but only an extremely narrow conception of Islam would hold that that religion, practiced by well over a billion people and in nearly every country in the world, stands outside the realm of legitimate religions. Muslims have a right to build houses of worship wherever anyone else has a right to build them, period. Anyone who denies that is a scoundrel and no pal of mine.

"Ought" is not a synonym for "right". "Ought" is concerned with what people should do, not with what they have a right to do. At almost any moment of the day, in the life of almost any human being (or organization), there exist inumerable possible actions that one might take, and has a right to take, but that one should not do because they are morally wrong. I might attempt to seduce my best friend's wife later today; or find a complete stranger in the street and tell him that his house is on fire and his children are dead. I might promise to mow my neighbor's lawn if he lends me his car when I have a flat, and then returning from the garage, I might thumb my nose at him, laugh at what a sucker he is and walk away. To my knowledge, I have a clear constitutional and legal right to do these things; and just as clearly I should not do any of them. Equally, if you were aware that I intended to commit such acts, you would have no legal obligation to stop me; but you might well have a moral obligation to do so, or at least try to dissuade me.

The problem is that rights are laid out in very broad strokes - they have to be, or they could not have the force of constitutional mandates. Morality, on the other hand, speaks to what we should or should not do in any particular situation. It does not necessarily provide us principles in advance; it is rather an obligation we have to consider the justice of our actions in each and every case where matters of justice might enter into the picture. Right does not track morality; it only determines at a very general level what permissions are granted to us. Should those permissions conflict with other things we want to preserve, a decision must be made. The right then no longer holds complete sway, and we have to figure out how to proceed.

This distinction has sadly been lost throughout the debate. It surfaced, however, in a letter to the Times today in which the Anit-Defamation League defended its position against a Times editorial supporting the mosque: "We have not denied the right to build the mosque on the site. We simply appealed to the initiators to consider the sensitivities of the victims and find another location." Therein lies the whole of the legitimate opposition: to make a moral appeal to the Cordoba Initiative and its leaders not to build a mosque in that location.

Issue #2: Radical Islam is not a negligible fringe movement but a substantial international trend within Islam. Supposing ourselves to have established that one can make a legitimate moral appeal on an issue without suggesting that anyone's rights be violated, the argument then changes direction. Fine, some say, you can ask that, but why should anyone grant it? We know that the 9/11 attack was a heinous act from which the victims and their families have suffered greatly; but, to quote the Times editorial, "The attacks of September 11 were not a religious event. They were mass murder. The American response... was not a war against Islam."

The right/ought confusion is perhaps a subtle one; but the confusions here are not subtle, and it is hard to see them as innocent. The attacks were indeed not "a religious event" if by that we mean something like the the Jewish Day of Atonement, or perhaps the suppression of the Albigensian heresy; but they were events done in the name of religion. Indeed, outside of major territorial conflicts (and even in some cases including them) there is more mass murder committed in the name of religion than for any other reason, by far. So the meaning of "not a religious event" is a bit too refined to have any real substance. "Religious events", sadly and to the great detriment of humanity, include an untold number of acts of mass murder, not to mention every other form of abuse. Acts undertaken in the name of religion, by members of a single faith, with the explicit or tacit approval of leaders of that faith, are religious acts, like it or not.

The point here does not depend on Osama bin Laden personally representing Islam, or his explicitly tying the attacks to Islam, or to the great battle against Western corruption of the Islamic world (though he certainly has made such claims on more than one occasion). It does not depend on 9/11 being a legitimate expression of Jihad, or on the meaning of Jihad being a literally physical fight against all non-Muslim societies. (Not that the history of Islam lacks evidence to support that contention.) There are a great many Muslims who deny that bin Laden has any particular expertise with regard to Jihad or Islam in general, and who say that on their understanding of Islam such acts would never be condoned. (There are passages in the Hadith, for example, which suggest that Mohammed counseled his followers not to deal with people harshly. Of course, their is also an evident and widespread practice of doing just that in countries which implement strict versions of Shariah law.) But bin Laden did not come from nowhere; he is not a single, isolated, extremist voice within a placid Islamic world. He was supported by Saudi Arabia. He and Al Qaeda were harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were tolerated by Pakistan, Yemen and other Islamic nations. They have found supporters all over the world. And their stated political goals are shared by many Muslim groups (and only by Muslim groups) throughout the Middle East: by Hezbollah and Hamas, by factions in Yemen, by the ruling party in Iran, and in many other places. (Oddly enough, Iraq is
probably one of the places they are least welcome.) Not coincidentally, many of these same groups espouse a particularly conservative brand of Islam. There is, in other words, an undeniable link between the source and inspiration for the 9/11 attacks and the espousal of radical Islamic ideas. Anyone who defends Islam by writing off bin Laden as a crank with no real base is not being honest. It is like saying that Jerry Falwell is not a real Christian. He may not be the voice of Christianity you would like, but he is the voice of Christianity we got. Ditto for radical anti-abortionists: to deny that they are acting in the name of Christianity when one of them murders an abortion provider is ridiculous. To deny that they represent Christianity when the Pope belches anti-abortionist propaganda across the world, equating it with murder, is almost as absurd. We cannot whitewash Islam by hauling out scholarly works and showing that bin Laden doesn't know his Qu'ran. He a big part of what Islam is in the world; and it's the world we are primarily concerned with, not the word.

In light of this - a great deal of which everyone knows, not least the Times and Michael Bloomberg - to argue that the 9/11 attacks were just a random act of mass murder, or, slightly more coherently, an act of pure politics with no reigious component at all, is just sheer deception and demagoguery. It is one thing to remind people that such radical ideologies are not expressive of all versions of Islam, nor even, most likely, of a majority version of Islam. But to say it simply has no relationship to Islam, or is a fringe movement with no base of popular support, is just wrong; indeed, almost willfully blind. Who is bin Laden, and who were his 19 henchmen, anyway - members of the Palestinian forces carrying out an official military mission? Emissaries of the Palestinian Resistance? What were these people doing, thinking they could intervene in this conflict in this way? Were they like the lincoln Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, selflessly helping out a just cause in the face of overwhelming force? Nobody hired them or asked them to intervene on behalf of the Palestinian cause. What were they driven by if not religious solidarity? And weren't they promised a bevy of vestal virgins in heaven for their service to Allah? Sometimes I really do wonder about people on the left, and their ability to bury their heads in the sand in support of an ideological view about tolerance and rights. There can be absolutely no doubt that the destruction of the Twin Towers was intimately and inextricably tied to one very strong conception of what Islam is and what it ought to be doing in the world today, and no amount of scholarship or empty phrasemongering is going to change that.

To hold, therepore, that building a large mosque right next to the site known as "Ground Zero" (a slightly bizarre appelation) is not offensive because the attacks had nothing to do with Islam, is nothing more than a rhetorical sweep of the hand, an attempt to befriend a certain (hopefully dominant) trend within Islam by denying that Islam is anything else than this more humane, tolerant ideology. You can't change the world, unfortunately, by wishing away the parts you don't want to see.

One further point must be made here. People who see the 9/11 attacks as connected with Islam are not simply reacting to verbal statements made by the perpetrators. They are seeing it on a continuum with a practice of suicide attacks that are endemic and almost unique to the Islamic world. The attacks are launched in and around Israel, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union, and in many other Islamic areas, always by people inspired by Islamic leaders and told that they woud be rewarded by Allah for their acts. Other than the Japanese kamikazi attacks in WW II, it is hard to think of another example of such tactics. To say that suicide attacks by a group of all Muslim individuals has nothing to do with Islam or religion is not even a comprehensible position, much less a correct one.

Furthermore, all these acts are seen as being on a continuum with a broad lack of respect for human life and for the bodily integrity of individuals. Thus you see in various places throughout the Islamic world the practice of beheading enemies, severing limbs as punishment, stoning people to death in public, brutally whipping people (including women) in public, and other such acts that are shocking and abhorrent to the moral conscience of the modern world. This is not to deny that at one time, similarly brutal acts were committed in Western societies too, and may still be by isolated individuals and even covertly by arms of the government. We cannot forget that Hitler committed far worse terrors than any Islamic leaders, that forms of torture are practiced behind closed doors in U.S. police stations, that waterboarding is part of the legacy of the worst President in recent U.S. history. The difference is that such things, when they come to light, are considered deviant. The response in the U.S. to discovery of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib was one of almost universal condemnation. Whereas one sees government-sponsored public torture as a matter of course in a number of Islamic nations or territories (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, etc.).

So I think the effort to dissociate Islam from the terrorist attacks fails. There is a multifaceted association between the 9/11 attacks and Islam, the Islamic world, and Islamic culture. Those who are trying to paint a rosy picture in order to deny the association of Islam with the attacks will fail to win over the U.S. public, who have seen or read about enough of what I have just described to know what is going on. We must avoid using this against the more humane, wordly, pious and beneficent currents in Islam -which, once again, may still be the majority, and which deserve our tolerance and indeed support. But to deny it outright is an enormous mistake.

Issue #3: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
Lining up against the mosque are a list of Republican ideologues, from Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin to Rick Lazio, as well as various opportunistic Republicans who have a campaign axe to grind. Whereas all the sane and lovely people who favor building it are Democrats or liberals of one stripe or another (Bloomberg, the Mayor by, of and for the rich, has been perversely canonized as a liberal for the purposes of this discussion). Opposing the mosque is therefore reactionary and wrong, Q.E.D. Similarly, the community board that voted overwhelmingly in favor of the mosque, and the Landmarks Commission that has approved it, are said to represent the true voice of the people and of the democratic spirit.

But I have to politely demur from all this. Even a paranoid has enemies. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. A lot of these Republicans are pretty much stopped clocks, in my view; there ain't much going on upstairs except kneejerk opposition to all perceived enemies from without and within. That their ideological blinders should occasionally intersect with a political truth only shows that one might occasionally have the right position for the wrong reasons. And what I would less enthusiastically call "kneejerk liberalism" might have a much more benign internal logic, that of defending basic democratic rights, which occasionally intersects with an incorrect and pollyannaish line. The conservatives also have a not-very-well-hidden agenda in arrousing anti-Muslim sentiment: not just rally-round-the-flag patriotism but using Islamic terrorism as a wedge
to undermine privacy and civil rights. It's not like someone just alerted us to this yesterday, thanks. But I have never, will never, adjust my views to espouse something false because someone else who espouses something true is a reactionary jerk with an immoral agenda. That would be unphilosophical; it is also spineless and thoughtless. We need to uphold the truth and do it for correct reasons, not phony reactionary reasons like pushing through the next version of some anti-immigration law or preparing the ground for the next federal attack on privacy. (Unfortunately that may well come from Obama and not the Republicans, but that's another story.)

As for the execrable, racist, bigoted trash that has been quoted from various mosque-opponents around the country, to the effect that we should oppose the building of any mosque, anywhere in the U.S., that all Muslims are terrorists and that they should be swept into the sea (as unfortunately the PLO at one time suggested should happen to the Israelis) I have only the utmost contempt. If anyone suggests that opposing the construction of a major Islamic house of worship right next to the World Trade Center site somehow leads inexorably to, or is on a continuum with, extremist views like that, I can only say that I fail to see how it does, and that I am extremely comfortable taking the one position and rejecting the other outright. The burden of proof is on them to show how these apparently quite distinct views are actually the same, or brands of the same thing.

Issue #4: A mosque is a mosque is a mosque. Or to put it in a perhaps more enlightening way, a mosque is an Islamic place of worhsip, by defnition. Any place that is set aside as an Islamic place of worship is a mosque, and by Islamic law, once it is a mosque, it is always a mosque and cannot be any other kind of space. Non-Muslims may be invited into the mosque; they are, however, guests, and have no inherent right to enter it. It is true that the traditional function of the mosque has always been to function as a community center; it is said that Mohammed condoned the use of the mosque as a treasury, as a place to give shelter, as a place to mete out punishment, and perhaps other uses. But all those things are peripheral to its function as place of worship.

Now it seems to me that there are various levels of dissembling going on at the Cordoba Initiative and among their supports. First and foremost, the leader of the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has stated in a public speech, broadcast in video on the CI's home page, that the building they plan to build "is not a mosque, this is a cultural center". This claim casts serious doubt on the integrity of Imam Rauf, because he knows better than anyone that the intention is that the building will contain a place of worship, and that it is not a matter of how many square feet are devoted to worship; it will be understood and seen as a mosque with the traditional peripheral functions of a mosque. Indeed, one argument that has been offered for building it (I can't locate the source for this right now - possibly the community board hearings) is that the Muslim population in downtown Manhattan has outgrown the existing mosques there. Indeed, it was reported a few days ago that the Imam is already holding services in the new building, which means, technically, that it already is a mosque, and is to become an elaborate and impressive one.

It is disappointing to hear those who point to the Qu'ran to defend moderate versions of Islam nevertheless ignore the fact that a mosque which also functions as "a cultural center" is a mosque in Islamic law, and in fact, is as traditional conception of a mosque as there is. I cannot therefore abide the mendacity of stating that because it is also a community center, it is not really a mosque. That is pure rubbish, and the comparisons to the 92nd Street Y, which Rauf has used to defend the conception and location of the mosque, are also dishonest: there is no place of worship at the 92nd Street Y; it is a not a synagogue, by any definition. Now, it may be true that some Jewish and Christian representatives are to be on the board of Cordoba House. The only person currently listed on the board of the CI is Rauf himself. Randy Benn, identified as an Elder of the Presbyterian Church of Northern Virginia, is listed as a policy advisor. No Jews are listed as belonging to the CI in any capacity, and no board is listed on the page for Cordoba House, though apparently some rabbis have been approached.

The idea of including Jews and Christians in the project may seem extraordinarily liberal, but only to those who do not understand that Islam has always seen Judaism and Christianity as kindred religions; the Qu'ran itself contains retellings of numerous stories from the Old and New testaments, while rejecting Christian idolatry and some other aspects of the older religions. The fact that CH would include Jews and Christians in leadership is interesting, but not startling. What would be startling is if they put some Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and other pagans up there too; but I don't think you are about to see a "community center" quite so inclusive. It is a mosque, with the traditional function and ideology of a mosque, and others are invited to participate (even to swim in their pool? wow!) at the discretion of the Imam.

If the Cordoba Initiative wants to build a real cultural center, a secular institution without a place of worship, nothing and no one is stopping them. Remove the place of worship and I withdraw my opposition instantly. A mosque and a cultural center are totally different kinds of symbols. The latter is not a monument and factory of Islamic belief but an invitation to explore a people's history. The former is an arena of contention for any faction whatever, a forum for all elements however radical. It is like the difference between a sword and its sheath. The fact that the CI insists on building a mosque in spite of the obvious symbolic value of a building on that site, and refuses to build a true cultural center while saying that they are, is a sign that they are not dealing honestly with the public.

Issue #5: Try a little tenderness. Why, after all, is there a legitimate, non-bigoted, politically neutral position opposing the building of the mosque? Tying together what we have said above, a criminal act of terrorism with an unmistakable Islamic component was committed on 9/11, It was an enormous, if temporary, victory for the most radical brand of Islam; it destroyed, in a dramatic way, a complex that was in many ways a symbol of the West and what it represents to the backward, hateful, intolerant elements in the Muslim world. It was not primarily an act of defense of Palestinian interests; it was a statement that the U.S> and the West should get out of the Middle East altogether and let the radicals continue their frightening expansion of influence, along the lines of the Iranian Revolution. This in-your-face attack on Western values and influence is indelibly stamped with the thumbprint of Islam. Erecting a mosque - one that will be notable for its size - directly at the site of the attack has enormous sybolic value, and has the effect of gloating - a sentiment that has been expressed from time to time by the most radical Islamic opponents of the U.S.

That Americans should be sensitive to this is not surprising. But there are still thousands of people who were directly affected by the attacks, either through having lost someone, or having been injured, or having lived in the neighborhood, or like myself, having simply been on the way to work and seen the buildings burning and the human bodies falling from the windows and having swallowed the blackened air. (There are a great many other stories of exposure of one sort or another - too many to go into here.) It is not an exercise in community-building or reconciliation to sweep aside the feelings of these people and erect a mosque in a building that was actually part of the damaged site (the landing gear of one of the planes went through the roof, shutting the Burlington Coat Factory store that was there before.)

It is of no help that as a matter of historical record, Muslims have previously built large mosques on the site of military victories. This effort smacks of a kind of stealth "victory mosque", whether or not that is the intention of Imam Rauf and his supporters. It is additionally of little comfort that the Imam has refused to quell suspicions that the funding for the mosque is coming from radical Islamic governments, such as Saudi Arabia. This only adds to the sense that there is an agenda other than bridge-building here.

If the Islamic community wants to build bridges, the right way to go about it would have been to make their contacts first, and determine a neutral and convenient place to site the mosque. And even if that moment had passed, they should have responded immediately to the discomfort in New York City and across the world and offered to locate it elsewhere, rather than standing on ceremony about their rights and attempting to paint the mosque as a not-mosque. They should have done this even if they thought the opposition to the location was wrongheaded or discriminatory, if for no other reason than that conceding on this point would have demonstrated beyond all doubt that their agenda was solely one of improving mutual understanding. That would have shown a true intention to go down the path of reconciliation and enlightenment. Instead, they have chosen to fight. That is very unfortunate. This particular location has no inherent importance for the community center, while it has tremendous importance for the victims of 9/11. The harder the CI fights to locate it there, the less reason there is to trust their stated intentions. In fact, I wonder if having one mosque there is really enough. Perhaps they should build another one right next to it. Why not the Twin Mosques, I mean cultural centers? In fact, maybe that should be the 9/11 memorial, and we don't need that below-ground pit they are planning to install? I don't know why any of the proponents of the mosque should have a problem with this. After all, if you like the idea in the first place, then two mosques are better than one.

(Please note: I am leaving on vacation and will not have internet access for a few days. I have not had time to do as much fact-checking and editing as I normally would for a post this long and controversial. I regret any factual errors or typos that may exist above, and will correct them when I return. Also, I encourage your comments, but it may take a couple of extra days to read and post them. Thanks for your patience.)

1 comment:

Deborah said...

Ok. You made me rethink the issue, and I agree that both arguments being presented are not logical. However, I will never forgive you for making me agree with Sarah Palin even if she is right for all the wrong reasons. I still think the media is blowing this issue out of proportion, and people from outside of NYC are using this issue as platform for inciting the crowds just before an election.