Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Best Case Against the "Ground Zero mosque"

In all the debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, many reasons have been floated for its opposition.   But I have yet to hear one that doesn't seem to ultimately be about bigotry.

bigot: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; A person obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a particular religious creed, opinion, or practice; a person blindly attached to an opinion, system, or party, and bitterly intolerant of those who believe differently.
I think what's interesting is the emphasis on the "irrationality" in bigotry.  Many people claim that Islam is an inherently violent or dangerous religion.  I think there is some merit to this, but no more so than most other religions, and that it is really a very sort of serious and specific argument that must be made carefully and in full awareness of its precarious nature.  And it needs to be very clearly a rational argument.  For instance, opposition to homosexuality is not rational at all, as there is no evidence that there is anything wrong with it at all, aside from religious teachings, which themselves are, by definition, not rational.  But are there large organizations or groups that one can oppose?  Certainly.  But to avoid bigotry, opposition must be rational.  I oppose the KKK for very clear reasons, and thus am not bigoted toward them.

But so I recently came across a comment on a Michael Kinsley article that seemed at least made an argument for opposition that was at least somewhat plausibly not based in bigotry:

"Let us assume, hypothetically, a Jewish shopkeeper in Manhattan who lost a loved one and close friends in the tragedy. Let us further assume that they do not blame Muslims as a group for the actions of the terrorists, but they do have difficulty understanding why some Muslim leaders seem less than enthusiastic about condemning terrorist acts. If they view the Cordoba imam as one of those leaders who always condemns the taking of innocent life, with a “but” tacked on after the condemnation, as in “But, we must understand why young Muslims are drawn to radical Islam” and infer that U.S. policy is complicit, they may question the bona fides, or moderation, of that imam. My hypothetical shopkeeper may not have all of the facts, and personal grieving may interfere with objective assessments, but to say that any reservations they may express about the wisdom of the project are founded in bigotry or opportunism miss the mark, in my opinion."

But I still don't buy it. First of all, bigotry is mostly unconscious. I say this in the sense that if one is bigoted, one likely doesn't really understand why - they just "feel" it. It's irrational after all, right? Much of our thought is influenced by the unconscious. So there are plenty of people who do not consider themselves bigots, yet still act under the influence of unconscious bigotry.

So that's a really squishy concept. Welcome to discrimination (race, sex, etc.), right? So I think when singling out an entire religion for skepticism we have to be really careful. The Nazi/papal example certainly doesn't cut it because that is a particular church. So your example essentially rests on the idea that maybe there was a question about the particular imam's political beliefs. OK, but now we're getting into really tricky territory. No church, just a single man.

So where is the evidence? This has been going on for a long time and the whole project has been looked into. There are no terrorist ties. He's no terrorist sympathizer. There's nothing really. So there is a complete legal right. And there is no sensitivity problem. These are evidently good people trying to do something good.

What's left over is bigotry. You simply can't ignore the history of hateful attitudes towards Muslims - certainly many of which have been specifically expressed by mosque opponents. There is simply no case for suspicion any more. It's all hate now. Even if it's been drummed up by the right-wing media and become a political football, at its core that's what it is. 

Even if there may be some cause to be - somewhere, by someone - the vast majority of the arguments heard in opposition do not articulate the issue thusly. Instead, they refer to not wanting to "offend" New Yorkers/victims, implicitly acknowledging that they themselves don't even hold such suspicions. Or they explicitly argue that Islam is inherently bad, dangerous, etc. Or they worry that Sharia law will be imposed. Or they argue that the mosque is simply there to be "rubbed in our faces". Or that it is part of a larger conspiracy to attack. Which I think can all be attributed to bigotry.

Look, what's the big deal with calling something bigoted? This goes back to my original post: we think bigoted things all the time. But we censor ourselves, possibly not always quite understanding why but out of respect for the idea that unconscious attitudes can creep into all of our judgments at any time. My worry is that too many people are forgetting how much of this still exists. They think that just because we all consciously "know" that bigotry is wrong, that suddenly we no longer have bigoted thoughts. That is absolutely the wrong lesson to take from the civil rights movement and it is dangerous.

Plenty of people - as one can clearly see all over the internet and from the mouths of TV pundits - have no problem saying horrible and false things about Islam & Muslims. I'd bet none of them consider themselves bigots. But that is exactly what they are when they are saying those things - by definition. So I have a very hard time finding sympathy for the idea that there is any rational basis for existential opposition to the center at this point. 

photo: David Shankbone

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