August 23, 2010

Back to the Manhattan Islamic Center

Imagine No ReligionControversy over the proposal by an Islamic group to build a community center near "ground zero" in Manhattan has only intensified since I wrote about it at the beginning of the month. Each side in the dispute has at least one valid point with which reasonable people should be able to agree, and yet, members of each side have been demonized not only by those on the other side but by those who generally agree with them. What a mess! I have been most disappointed with those on the political left, and I'll explain why.

One Point of Agreement

As the debate continues (or at least what passes for debate in America these days), both sides have reached agreement on one thing. Everybody now seems to agree that the Muslim group has the legal right to build their center on the private property they own. Under the First Amendment of the Constitution, the government cannot interfere with this right. This is clear, and it is encouraging to see that even those who remain adamantly opposed to the center now acknowledge this right.

The Disagreement

As I understand it, those on the right who are opposed to the center are making the argument that building it in the desired location is insensitive to the victims of 9/11 and their families. The more reasonable among them would say that the Muslims have the right to build where they want but should not do so out of respect. This is a valid point, and one which should be part of the discussion. The less reasonable among them have instead decided to score political points by stoking fear among uninformed conservative voters, some of whom are indeed bigots, and now appear to see this as little more than an opportunity for themselves.

The political left has become surprisingly fragmented on this issue. Some have adopted a position almost identical to that of the more reasonable voices on the right, agreeing that the Muslims can build their center where they want but hoping they don't. This seems to be Howard Dean's position.

Not surprisingly, others on the left have demonized those in their camp who hold views like Dean's. Their position, as I understand it, is that the Muslims should be able to build their center where they want and anybody who tries to discourage them from doing so or talks of possible compromise is xenophobic, racist, or just plan evil. This seems to be Glenn Greenwald's position.

My Position

I suppose my position on the center comes closest to that of Dean and some of the more reasonable Republicans, with a couple of important differences. I recognize that the Muslims have a legal right to build their center where they want, and I do not support any sort of government intervention to prevent them from doing so. In fact, I'll go so far as to say I believe they have exactly the same right as a group of Christians would to build a church on land they owned.

But none of this means I like it, that I will pretend that Islam had nothing to do with 9/11, or that I think we need any more monuments to superstition. Like Dean, I think it would be useful for those with reasonable opposition to the center to sit down with those who want to build it and see what happens. In the end, the group may decide to build as planned. This is their right, and I will support them in exercising that right over the opposition of the opponents if necessary. But before we get to that point, I do think it could be valuable to have some real discussion if we are still capable of that.

To My Fellow Left-Leaning Atheists

We all know that the Muslims have every right to build their center and that even if it was purely a Mosque, they'd still have the right to build it. Not only do they have this right, but they may also choose to ignore every bit of opposition to their plans. They have this right as well. But those who are opposed to the center, for whatever reason, have a right to their opinion too. Not all of them are racists, xenophobes, or worse. By lumping everyone who opposes the center into the same category and then attacking them as cowards, bigots, or traitors, we make the same mistake for which those on the right are notorious. These reflexive and often misplaced accusations not only cheapen the discourse but undermine our ability to effectively oppose real racism, xenophobia, and the like.