I’ve been in a bit of a fog for the last few weeks, and am just now catching up on the noise about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed in Hitchens. He rightly points out that most of the opposition is base, stupid demagoguery and racism, but then he offers his own reasons why the construction is problematic. They are that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the building, holds odious and undemocratic views, and that encouraging Muslims leads to their attempts to impose their rather unpleasant moralistic views on their neighbors.
Which is all true. However, we have not made thinking ugly thoughts about creating a theocracy illegal — if we did, we ought to simply arrest the Imam for promoting undemocratic ideals. We don’t and we won’t, I hope, because then we’re voluntarily setting ourselves on the road to tyranny that they seem to want. Also, of course, if disseminating propaganda advocating a theocratic state were criminalized, practically every fundamentalist/evangelical Christian leader in the country would also have to be arrested. There’s much to be said for a plan that would scoop up Phil Johnson, Lou Engle, Pat Robertson, the hierarchy of the Catholic church, the leadership of the Discovery Institute, and every tinpot crank preaching a generic fundie gospel in a converted grocery store and throw them into prison…but again, we lose our democratic soul if we lose our tolerance for stupid ideas. If the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has done nothing that warrants any kind of criminal charges, you can’t simply use evidence of his unpleasant character and nasty dreams to justify civil punishment.
Also, you can’t use the possibility that once they’ve got their community center, local Muslims will start harrassing people who walk their dogs too close to the building as a reason to oppose it. That would be like suggesting that maybe if the work permit for a new Catholic church goes through, someday a priest might rape a little boy or girl inside, therefore it should not be built. Of course those things could happen, which is why there are laws about public access and the protection of minors, and those are what we ought to focus on enforcing.
Naturally, I dislike the idea of constructing religious buildings anywhere, since they are a colossal waste of community resources, typically represent unproductive holes in the tax base, and promote stupid thinking — but guess what? Those aren’t legal cause to interfere with people’s right to waste their time and money. Also, if we accept the privilege of individual autonomy and personal freedom, we don’t have moral cause to interfere.
I do like Hitchens’ conclusion, though: “Let us by all means make the ‘Ground Zero’ debate a test of tolerance. But this will be a one-way street unless it is to be a test of Muslim tolerance as well.” Which is exactly right: we stand back and make it an open example of the principle of liberty that they can build anything they want (within zoning laws), whether it is a mosque, a synagogue, a cathedral, a community center, or a retirement home for mentally ill clowns, but that that freedom does have reasonable community constraints that they are voluntarily accepting, and there’s no going back and saying after the fact that the ideology of their building occupants allows them to violate local laws.