Obama draws fire over ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (what a stupid name)

I am re-posting this, a post that I wrote about a month ago and posted on Canadian Atheist. Because I am rather proud of it, I’m cross-posting it here for posterity.

I’ve read some depressingly stupid responses to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque“. One came from leading skeptic and atheist Sam Harris:

But the margin between what is legal and what is desirable, or even decent, leaves room for many projects that well-intentioned people might still find offensive. If you can raise the requisite $100 million, you might also build a shrine to Satan on this spot, complete with the names of all the non-believing victims of 9/11 destined to suffer for eternity in Hell.

Nice, Sam. Very nice.

Also flogging the “desirable and decent” horse is Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid:

Spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement that the senator respected that “the First Amendment protects freedom of religion”, but still thought the mosque, planned for a site about two blocks away from the former World Trade Center, should be built in a different location.

Way to stand up for Democratic principles, Harry.

And yet, surrounded by the raging storm of stupid, President Barack Obama has stood up and said that the construction should be allowed to go ahead:

At a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan on Friday, Mr Obama vigorously defended the developers’ right to put the mosque there “in accordance with local laws and ordinances”. Muslims “have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country”, the president said.

As far as his personal feelings on the “desirable and decent” pseudo-argument, President Obama declined to comment, which is his right. His statement, however, reasserted the principles of freedom of religion, tolerance and secular authority that the United States was built on.

That’s really not going to help his poll numbers:

Some 18% said the president was a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009, according to the Pew Research survey of 3,003 Americans. Among Republicans, that number was 34%. Just a third of those quizzed correctly identified Mr Obama as Christian.

Republican critics have accused the President of being out of step with mainstream Americans. If “mainstream Americans” are this stupid and have memories this short (Rev. Wright? Remember that guy?), I’d prefer to be out of step with them. “Mainstream Americans” are in dire need of a civics lesson. So, to help our knowledge-impoverished neighbours to the south (including Sam Harris, apparently), I’ll remind you of three important facts.

1. The “Ground Zero Mosque” is not at Ground Zero

The proposed Cordoba Centre is being built 4 blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre remains. It is being built in an abandoned coat factory. Opponents of the building have not provided a proposal for how far away it is okay to built a mosque, nor have they provided some rationale for why such a distance is more acceptable than 4 blocks.

2. The “Ground Zero Mosque” is not a mosque

The Cordoba Centre is being built as a Muslim community centre. It does contain a prayer room (which should surprise exactly nobody, since prayer is a part of Muslim life), but it also contains a basketball court, a gym, a book store, and a culinary school. There is a giant Jewish community centre of the same type sitting at the corner of Bloor st. and St. George in Toronto. I’ve been in there, and I’m pretty sure everybody knew I wasn’t Jewish. It’s a community centre, not a synagogue. The proposed Cordoba Centre is exactly the same thing.

3. There’s already a “Ground Zero” mosque

Apparently there’s some confusion about what was there first – the Muslims or the terror. There’s been a mosque (Masjid Manhattan) 2 blocks from the World Trade Centre site since before there was a World Trade Centre. Muslims have been part of the population of Manhattan since far before these critics knew what Islam was.

Now that we know how intellectually bankrupt the arguments against being allowed to construct a mosque in that “holy site” are, let’s look at this risible “desirable and decent” argument of Sam Harris. Sam, you’re an atheist, right? A pretty vocal one, if I remember correctly. You know who might not find your beliefs, or your out-spoken defence and promotion of them, “desirable and decent”? Millions of Christian Americans. That’s right Sam, by your own argument, you should be keeping your damn mouth shut.

I’m not sure how much I want to explore the stupidity of the conservative critics:

“It’s unwise to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of a terrorist attack,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas said on Sunday on Fox News.

This is about as sterotypical as Islamophobia gets. Senator Corwyn is asking us to complete the following logic assignment:

A. Terrorists blew up the World Trade Centre
B. ???
C. Muslims pray at mosques.

Therefore, we shouldn’t have mosques near the World Trade Centre

The solution to that little logic problem up there, incidentally is B: All Muslims are terrorists. I doubt anybody reading this needs me to explain why the proposition is not only offensive, but incorrect.

The main crux of Sam’s piece is that Islam is not merely just another peaceful religion with a few deluded followers – that it, more than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Sikhism (or any number of other -isms) promotes violence and the subjugation of women. I’m not sure I disagree with Sam on this one. In its current incarnation, Islam worldwide is a consistent force for evil (see Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, the Maldives, for evidence of this). I wonder if Sam knows that there is a surefire method to blunt a religion’s influence – secularize it. If Muslims feel cut off from secular America (if you, for example, protest when they try to build a community centre), they will band together under the banner of their religion. This means that the moderate elements are going to feel strong solidarity with the radical elements. No Sam, the answer is to make them feel welcome as possible, and start sending your kids to play basketball and cook with Muslim kids.  It’s harder to draw barriers around yourself when there are people who don’t share your religious beliefs eating at your table or slam-dunking for your team.

Finally, there’s a major flaw in the argument that I haven’t really heard discussed. Even if the mosque was at ground zero. Even if the mosque was a mosque. Even if there was no other mosque there, this thing would still be a good idea. One of the reasons the United States is reviled by the Muslim world is that it is built on the idea that all people are free to believe what they want. In Muslim countries, it is illegal to convert from Islam. Some even require you by law to be a Muslim. They enforce laws that are based on Muslim scripture that supersede secular law. The idea of a place where Muslims aren’t special, where Allah is not even recognized in passing, is offensive to these dictatorial assholes. Putting up a Muslim centre at the site of a terrorist attack sponsored by the Muslim world is essentially a big “fuck you” to those same assholes. It says essentially that not only are we not going to allow your attacks to change our way of life, we’re going to go out of our way to promote those same ideas you find repulsive, and we’re going to use your religion to do it.

This “controversy” is nothing but appeals to what is least-informed and most bigoted in our society, and has no place being defended by thinking people. I’m disappointed in you, Sam.

TL/DR: Sam Harris is kind of a dick, the “Ground Zero Mosque” is neither of those things, and even if it was we should build it anyway.

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  1. says

    Well said.

    Also: the primary job of the US President is to defend the constitution. Obama can tick that box right now. And if he doesn’t get re-elected for doing his job exactly as he is supposed to do it… Well… The international eye-rolling will be immense.

  2. says

    First, i agree.

    Second, it is a point of debate in the Islamic community, but it is a mosque…well better put, the center contains a mosque. The modern criteria seems to be what the community thinks of it. Until its built and ‘common usage’ takes effect we will not know for sure but I think that the local Muslim community do think the center has a mosque.

    My reading in the past led me to understand that the difference between a prayer-room and mosque is one is private the other public. So a ‘prayer rooms’ at work (The Pentagon) or school (UBC) are for the use of employees/students…not the ‘community’ or general public. A mosque is for the latter. It is similar to Christian Chapels (for the Lord/Lady) and church (for the village).

    (http://www.easyislam.com/fiqh_of_masjid_musalla.asp re: Islamic Centers and Musallas Today)

  3. says

    Interesting. I imagined it would be something similar to Catholicism, in which you can have a prayer room or a chapel or whatever, but it’s not sacred unless consecrated. The criterion for a church in the RCC is that it has to have a tabernacle in which the host is stored.

  4. Ryan says

    Well put, overall. I agree with pretty much all of it except for the last part “I’m disappointed in you, Sam.” The fact that Sam Harris of all people on the atheist side came out against the Muslim centre should not have even raised an eyebrow.

    Sam Harris has always been more of a selective Atheist (when was the last time you heard him speak out against the other religions? He seems to love Buddhist teachings and has it in mostly for Islam) even to the point where he makes claims about Islam/Muslims that are untrue or gets confounding factors mixed up.

    For example, he often just does fear-mongering when it comes to radical Muslims and the perceived threat to the west. He asserts the threat is on the rise when the evidence (yes, the same Pew results he quotes in the End of Faith) actually point to it being on the decline in the Muslim world. (same thing Fox news and other right-wingers do, not impressed when they do it and certainly ain’t when atheists do it). Other notable things include how he mixes confounding factors when it comes to birth rates of Muslims in Europe (Yes, they have a high birth rate but so do all immigrants from poor countries). And, might I point out, it is usually the mantra of far right-wing xenophobic parties in Europe to point it out like that. Given what he wrote in his End of Faith and Letter to a Christian nation, it does not surprise me in the slightest that he would come out strongly against the “ground zero” Mosque (or as it is REALLY called Park51, another blurring of fact and fiction).

    He also seems to have love of Buddhist “wisdom” in the same way that Evangelicals love the “wisdom” of Jesus.
    He seems to think it is ethical to follow the “wisdom” of Buddha while decrying the ‘religion” of Buddhism”. But how is it different from western religion’s ‘reformations’? His logic works in the same way that ‘protestants’ believed in the ‘wisdom’ of Jesus while condemning the ‘religion’ of Catholicism. Implying there is a real difference between seeking “genuine truths” for a follower of Buddha is different that a follower of Jesus. Come out Sam, we know your a closeted Buddhist…

    (From “Killing Buddha”:http://www.samharris.org/media/killing-the-buddha.pdf)

    “The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism.”
    (Sounds like Martin Luther…)

    “the methodology of Buddhism uncovers genuine truths about…the phenomenal world”
    (The pope deals in ‘genuine truths’…science only know true or false or undefined)

    “once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations.”
    “Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding…but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in our way.”

  5. Jenni says

    “Putting up a Muslim centre at the site of a terrorist attack sponsored by the Muslim world is essentially a big “fuck you” to those same assholes. It says essentially that not only are we not going to allow your attacks to change our way of life, we’re going to go out of our way to promote those same ideas you find repulsive, and we’re going to use your religion to do it.”

    Well said, Ian!! You’ve summarized, much more eloquently than I ever could, my thoughts on this issue…

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