The Mosque and the Koran
A look at the moral issues surrounding the Mosque planned for near Ground Zero and the plan of a Protestant Pastor to burn the Koran show the two to have much in common, and not just that for a time it seemed that the plan for one could be traded off for the other. Rather, what both moments of public outrage put the blame on the wrong party.
The protest against the mosque, remember, was started by a group of 9/11 families who thought building the mosque was insensitive to their feelings. Most people, naturally enough, want to honor the 9/11 families by giving in to their reasonable requests. The nation has already paid a lot of money to these families as a kind of conscience money, even though the families of civilians who lost their lives in other acts of war have not received that level of compensation. Paying millions and millions to multiple families was just a way of trying to deal with the awfulness of what had transpired. By treating it as an event similar to a commercial accident in which damages would be awarded, the idea was furthered that the attack on the World Trade Center was a freak occurrence rather than an act of war.
How much are the 9/11 families entitled to when it comes to respecting their views? It would seem to be quite a lot in that, in the mosque case, they are calling for nothing less than a suspension of the First Amendment so as to appease their emotional sensibilities. Numerous politicians, including Rudy Giuliani, jumped on their bandwagon, and suggested that it would be a worthy act for the people who wanted to construct the mosque to change their plans so as to not offend the 9/11 families. Some 9/11 families have found such politicization repugnant, but they surely should have known what they were getting into when they made their moral demand. The Muslim religion was supposed to get out of the way of their feelings. The families felt they had the moral conscience of the nation beholden to them.
That was even true of the facts of the matter. The mosque had been portrayed as a tall building, when thirteen stories are not very high for that area. The mosque had been portrayed as on Ground Zero when it is two blocks away, not in line of sight of the World Trade Center site, and everybody in New York City knows that a block is enough distance to change one neighborhood into another. Remember when East 96th Street was the border between Harlem and white Manhattan? The mosque is represented as an attempt at Islamic triumphalism when, in fact, it is a community center with one room set aside for prayer and most of it similar to any “Y”, and there is a large constituency of Muslims who need a place in the neighborhood to go and pray. But all of these facts are put aside or treated as the 9/ll families misrepresent them because the 9/11 families should be respected.
President Obama had given the people proposing a mosque a way out at the beginning of the controversy. He said that they had a right to build the mosque but did not have to exercise that right. Now, I think, the opportunity to exercise such discretion is past. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the guy who proposed the mosque said since his return from a State Department sponsored tour of the Middle East, has implied that a difficult balancing act is underway. If he moves the site, it may please Americans, but it would be seen as an affront by Islamic groups abroad, who would take it as just another reason to riot against Americans. What he is going to do is still undecided.
Rauf, by the way, has outlasted the detractors trying to find some dirt on him. They could not believe that his motives were not either self-aggrandizing or that he was not in the pay of a foreign power. How many Christian congregations have to vet their ministers so carefully if they are to be allowed to build churches? I guess the rules are different for Muslims, even though they supposedly enjoy the same First Amendment protections as the rest of us. What if a Christian church had been asked to move a site somewhere in the United States because it gave offense to one or another group in the United States? One minister said he had moved a site for a church because the surrounding community complained that it would create too much traffic on local roads and so why shouldn’t Rauf do the same? Accommodating local traffic, however, is purely practical and has nothing to do with the religion itself, which is the objection that some have to the lower Manhattan mosque. At this point, moving the site would show a lack of respect for the First Amendment, no two ways about it.
The political rhetoric of a week ago was hypothetical. People would not be outraged if it was a Christian or Jewish building that was slated for that site, would they? Simple tolerance requires allowing Muslims to build their own house of worship, given that we are at war with Islamic terrorists rather than with Islam as a whole. Sure there are some bad apples in Islam, but that is true of every religion. Don’t blame everyone in a religion for what some members of it do in its name. So, sad as it is to do so, survivor families do not hold hostage the public conscience. There are more important issues at stake than their feelings. Well, this week the issue of who owns whose conscience has come back to haunt a Christian congregation.
Media people are quick to denounce Pastor Jones (media people are always quick to denounce somebody) for being a nut case who has plan to burn some copies of the Koran. And anyway, he has only a very small congregation. The President should do something to stop it. Jones should be arrested on some trumped up charge, says Pat Buchanan. As it was, Jones had been visited by the FBI and he had to deal with appeals from any number of higher ups that if he carried out his plan, he would be increasing the threat the lives of American troops abroad. If I were a minister, I would find all that pressure quite intimidating and I would continue on a course of action so roundly condemned only if it were a matter of the highest principle—which happened, as you remember, when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers after having been advised that it was an irresponsible and possibly illegal action.
Here is a Christian minister who is exercising his First Amendment rights. Those apply whether he is a minister of a small church or a mega church, whether he has a fancy theological degree or not, and whether he is very sophisticated about how to engage in negotiations with people who do a lot of negotiating while under the glare of media spotlights. Jones is not beyond summarizing what he is told as what he wishes he had been told. His First Amendment right is to burn the Koran, whether as an expression of his political beliefs or, as far as I know, as part of his church liturgy. He had no use for Islam (at least until this week when he probably for the first time met a sophisticated Muslim). We permit flag burning; we permit burning the President in effigy; we permit people to say the President is a Muslim who was not born here. And so why does common opinion, whether expressed by ministers of various faiths or by news people or by politicians try so strongly to dissuade a Christian pastor from going about doing what he feels religiously inspired to do? Because it might offend Islam, that’s why.
Now get this straight. The sensitivity of Islam has a hold on our collective conscience in the same way as the sensitivity of 9/ll families has a hold on our collective conscience. We don’t want to offend them because they might get mad at us and do something awful, like attack our troops or our civilians abroad. We have so little regard for their views that we are only out to manipulate them into being pacific.
Well, I don’t think they will love us if we give in to them. They will only find other ways to fan the hatred that separates us so as to further their idea that there is indeed a clash between our two civilizations, even if some of the more “moderate” religious leaders on their side who accept that idea may think it imprudent to engage in large scale violence against us, for the moment at least. Maybe the Pastor’s ploy is a good idea because it shows just how bad those people are. They will riot and carry on violence because of what happens in a country far, far away, outside their own sphere of influence. Imagine if a more mainline Christian church were asked to eliminate the mention of Jesus from its ceremonies because it gave offense to Muslims. If they come for one pastor, when will they come for the other parts of the American religious family?
This moral doctrine of one group serving as the moral conscience of another can lead to all sorts or outrageous things, if one is at all consistent in one’s arguments. Being mean-spirited, as Pastor Jones most certainly is, does not disqualify him as someone whose congregation is protected by the First Amendment, however much some ministers are willing to read him out of Christianity by pontificating about their own sense that Christianity means tolerance—well, maybe, lately. The Catholic Church, for example, believes and propagates the idea that it is always wrong to have an abortion, even when the child is the result of rape or incest. That strikes me and a lot of other people as being mean-spirited. Do other churches therefore have the right to regard the Catholic Church as an outlaw church, not a true Christian church, because it believes that life begins at conception and pushes for legislation to end abortion for any reason whatsoever? Should the Catholic Church respect the sentiments of pro-choice people by toning down its objections to abortion? Well, possibly they have, and certainly Mormons have toned down their doctrines to become acceptable citizens of the United States. But we do not make that a requirement of a religion, that it is required to tailor its message to suit general public opinion, nor is it generally believed in the United States that we should allow Israel to be swallowed up by an Arab horde just so that things will be easier between us and the Islamic world. Things wouldn’t be any easier. Then there would indeed be Islamic triumphalism.
I think the shoe of moral responsibility is on the other foot. If there is widespread rioting as a result of the burning of Korans, which is not likely to happen in this instance because Pastor Jones says he has withdrawn his plan, an upheaval elsewhere is the price the rest of the world has to pay for our preserving our own First Amendment rights. If such an event leads to the deaths of more Americans, that is just a sign that we are in a war with Islam and not just Islamic terrorists, and if that is or becomes the case, it is time we faced up to it. Let the Islamic regimes we have so carefully supported despite their anti-humanitarian inclinations cope or not. They need us to buy their oil more than we need to buy their oil, even now. Let them choke on the oil. They are paper tigers who attack the United States by supporting terrorist groups that allow them to avoid getting attacked in return. I do not invite a war between the West and all of Islam; I am simply advocating that once in a while we push back. Obama offered an olive branch and where did that get him? Israel offered an olive branch and continues to do so and we will see if the Palestinians rather than Obama and the Israelis have any sense of urgency to make a two state solution come true.