A Choice Of Monuments
I’m a great admirer of Sam Harris, and was very interested when an online friend with whom I’ve been discussing the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” (specifically, whether it should be banned from being built) sent me Sam’s take on the subject.
I find myself in broad but not perfect agreement with Sam Harris on this occasion also. We’re in full agreement on the facts, and our readings aren’t all that different.
President Obama said, “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”
In the article Sam Harris acknowledges that this is correct and that there is no legal barrier to the continuance of the project. Harris also notes that there are themes and specific exhortations within the Koran which lend themselves to extremists (and glancingly acknowledges that the same is true of the Bible), which he and I both consider problematic.
Harris seems to feel that it would have been helpful for the President to dwell on those themes and verses in a public address, though, and I don’t think it would have been. It would have been counter-productive, adding fuel to the fires which bigots are busily fanning all across this nation… as indeed any banning of the building of a mosque would be, to a catastrophically greater extent.
As Harris notes, it’s been said that the center could be a monument to tolerance, and he acknowledges that the core of those opposing it most vociferously (though not necessarily all in opposition) are simple bigots. Again, I fully agree.
What he fails to acknowledge, either because it hasn’t occurred to him or (more likely) because it doesn’t fit his rhetorical thrust (in which his primary aim is to reiterate the dangers of Islam), is that because our commitment to religious tolerance is built into our legal system, it would require a positive act of directed intolerance to prevent it.
THAT – the prevention of the mosque – would be an active oppression, and the mosque’s absence would be a monument to intolerance, just as the absence of a building at Ground Zero is a monument to gridlock and incompetence.
It’s true that some few Muslims – the ones who are already radicalized with hatred of the West – may regard the “Ground Zero mosque” as a symbol of Islam’s triumph. However, it is equally true that it will be regarded as a tangible symbol to the moderate Muslims that we Americans mean what we say when we speak of living in harmony.
The other monument – the monument to nihilism and bigotry formed by the absence – would do nothing but hand an unalloyed propaganda victory to the jihadists. “See,” they will say, “despite their fine words the West is indeed determined to stamp Islam out; they are so frightened of our power they will cast aside their most fundamental laws in opposition to even the most peaceful followers of Allah.”
It would be very effective propaganda, and would successfully radicalize many new jihadists, because it would be absolutely true. That would be what we had done, thrown away our own most deeply held principles out of cowardice and bigotry.
I believe Sam Harris is right when he points to the dangers of the irrationality and intolerance inherent in Islamic writ; I just think he underestimates the danger of allowing our national response to be our own irrationality and intolerance. That path leads only to an unending cycle of violence that feeds upon itself for generation after generation. The world is replete with examples – my other country of Ireland is barely beginning to heal from one such senseless cycle, begun long before the oldest members of my family were even born, and the peace there is fragile yet.
I do not support the Cordoba center, being neither a Muslim nor a New Yorker, but neither do I oppose it. I deplore the unwarranted importance given to it by its opposition, who have already handed bin Laden unnecessary propaganda points – ignored, the center would have been of no significance whatsoever, except a local and probably mostly beneficial one. It would certainly never have been a monument to anything, absent all the attention.
That other monument, though – the empty one, the absence that can only be built if Americans compromise their own most American principles – that one I’ll fight tooth and nail, because it not only aids and abets our jihadist enemies, but turns us upon ourselves, upon what is best in ourselves as Americans, and we all know what happens to a house divided against itself. It is not necessary to destroy America in order to save it, and I.won’t be a party to the attempt.
As an atheist I think Islam is as totally wrong as Christianity, even wronger if that were possible, and I’ll fight any attempt to impose any variety of Koranically based sharia law as hard or harder as I do Biblically based law. I like my laws firmly based on Enlightenment principles, which most definitely includes inalienable rights to criticize and condemn the myriad wrongnesses in any religion… but which also includes the right of people to be damned fools, right up to the point where their beliefs prompt actions which infringe the rights of others.
Uncomfortable as it may be, though, that means that we are not entitled to take preemptive action against those who have not infringed on anyone’s rights, even if we’re afraid they might do so in a possible future. That’s the Enlightenment way, the American way, and to depart from it through fear is to lose the war, and ourselves. (If you read in that a criticism of the Iraq war, you read correctly.)
If we are to be the land of the free, we must also be the land of the brave, willing to risk a little danger to our physical safety for the sake of our essential freedom. That’s worth a monument, and I suggest we finish building one at Ground Zero itself, and let it tower benignly over that little mosque.