Sep. 10th, 2010

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I don’t really understand the furor over these recent events: The resistance to a mosque near Ground Zero, the rage at the Florida priest who wants to burn Qurans.

Of course it’s offensive to burn Qurans. It’s offensive to me because book-burnings are generally violent and anti-intellectual protests and seems to follow in the footsteps of some very nasty movements that we’d do well not to emulate. It’s offensive to Muslims because—well, I don’t think I even need to finish that sentence. Yes, it’s offensive. That’s the point—like it or dislike it.

But in a society with free speech, we never have the right not to be offended. This should be starkly obvious to everyone paying the least bit of attention to the current debate, because both ‘sides’—if we grossly oversimplify this into Christians vs. Muslims for the sole purpose of making this paragraph simpler—are obviously offending each other. The Christians down in Florida are offending the Muslims by threatening to burn Qurans. The Muslims who want to build a mosque next door to Ground Zero¹ are offending an awful lot of people, too. Is it not slightly curious that when these [particular] Muslims are offending people, the promoters of tolerance tell us that we must be tolerant and therefore let them go ahead; whereas when other people are offending the Muslims, the promoters of tolerance tell us that we must be tolerant and therefore shut the hell up? Doesn’t this seem a bit one-sided?

Not only do we have no right not to be offended; it is not possible to get through this, or most any heated discussion, without someone getting offended. Someone will get offended however any of these debates turn out. Accept it. Get over it. Move on.

Now, personally (as if this mattered to anyone else!), I would be happier if nobody burned any books, even blatantly offensive ones like Bibles and Qurans and the writings of Martin Luther. I would also be happier if nobody built a mosque near Ground Zero. Well—I would be happier if nobody built any mosques at all, but to place it there reeks of either a desire to offend or of blatantly poor taste. I’m not suggesting that these people² don’t have a right to build their mosque wherever they own land with the proper zoning; I’m aware of no reason to think that anyone has any right to prevent them from building it. Still, it seems in poor taste at best: In spite of the fact that the overwhelmingly vast majority of Muslims are not in fact terrorists, it remains true that Ground Zero was the site of a horrific tragedy promoted and powered by religious fundamentalism, and a mosque is a place to honour and celebrate that same religion. I would feel the same way about a cathedral at Béziers, a Lutheran church at Auschwitz, a monument to America in My Lai. If you belong to a group that was associated with something horrible somewhere, the proper thing to do is probably to distance yourself from what they did and avoid glorifying your movement on the site of the atrocity.

Let me digress for a moment. I’m not suggesting that all Muslims are aligned with terrorist action. Not only are most Muslims in no way involved in atrocity; there are (unsurprisingly) overtly Muslim organisations that openly, honestly, and vocally campaign against the various atrocities often committed in the name of their religion. A brief search will find, for instance, the Free Muslims Coalition, who [promote] a modern secular interpretation of Islam which is peace-loving, democracy-loving and compatible with other faiths and beliefs. But the lamentable fact is that even they write that

The Free Muslims Coalition is a nonprofit organization made up of American Muslims and Arabs of all backgrounds who feel that religious violence and terrorism have not been fully rejected by the Muslim community in the post 9-11 era.

The Free Muslims was created to eliminate broad base support for Islamic extremism and terrorism and to strengthen secular democratic institutions in the Middle East and the Muslim World by supporting Islamic reformation efforts.

The Free Muslims promotes a modern secular interpretation of Islam which is peace-loving, democracy-loving and compatible with other faiths and beliefs. The Free Muslims' efforts are unique; it is the only mainstream American-Muslim organization willing to attack extremism and terrorism unambiguously. Unfortunately most other Muslim leaders believe that in terrorist organizations, the end justifies the means.

This is laudable—and tragic in equal measure. Laudable that they stand up to do this. Lamentable that they feel that they are unique; lamentable that there is broad base support for extremism and terrorism (laudable though their efforts to combat it may be); lamentable that they feel that they are the only mainstream American-Muslim organisation willing to unambiguously oppose it. Hear what else they have to say:

As written recently by Khaled Kishtainy, columnist at Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Newspaper, "I place on the Islamic intellectuals and leaders of Islamic organizations part of the responsibility for [this phenomenon] of Islamic terrorism, as nearly all of them advocate violence, and repress anyone who casts doubts upon this. Naturally, every so often they have written about the love and peace of Islam – but they did so, at best, for purposes of propaganda and defense of Islam. Their basic position is that this religion was established by the sword, acts by the sword, and will triumph by the sword, and that any doubt regarding this constitutes a conspiracy against the Muslims."

The Free Muslims finds this sympathetic support for terrorists by Muslim leaders and intellectuals to be a dangerous trend and the Free Muslims will challenge these beliefs and target the sympathetic support given to terrorists by Muslims.

Would that the Free Muslims were the majority voice of Islam. Alas, this does not seem to be the case. There are imams condoning terrorist actions. There are imams and ayatollahs issuing fatwahs calling for the death of people like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. There are uproars and uprisings at things like the Danish cartoons. Sure, most Muslims do not participate. But where are the voices decrying and condemning it? Why do I always hear Not all Muslims are like that; you can’t judge them all by those atrocities, rather than Not all Muslims are like that; you can’t judge us all by those atrocities—because we condemn them? Where are the counter-fatwahs and apologies to Rushdie and Hirsi Ali; where are the apologies for Theo Van Gogh and others like him; where are the imams standing up and saying Yes, I found those Danish cartoons offensive, but nowhere near as offensive as the reality that people are willing to kill and destroy merely because they are being teased?

Given that the majority voice of Islam is not the Free Muslims—given that the loud and clear speakers are the issuers of murderous fatwahs and not those who oppose them—I hardly find it surprising that people take offence to the erection of a mosque near Ground Zero. They have no right to prevent it, but they have a right to be upset—and they have a right to wonder (I certainly wonder) what is the motivation of the people who chose to erect it there. Who are the builders? Are they Free Muslims who wish to have a holy site to say, Look what happens when you take it too far, when you value holy writ over human life—these are our people, and we are here to apologise on behalf of Islam, to distance ourselves from it, to make penance? If so, good on them and build on, please. If not, then who, and why? —But again, people have a right to be upset but not to stop it. I think this is clear. I think this is an obvious consequence of a free society.

Is it not, then, obvious that the same must apply both ways? The Florida priest who wants to burn Qurans is offensive—in fact, deliberately offensive where I don’t know what the motives at Ground Zero may be. People have a right to be upset. But just as the Muslims behind the Ground Zero mosque have a right to build it, even though it offends people, so the Florida Christians have a right to burn Qurans, even though it offends people. Both actions are offensive to some. Both actions are offensive to me. Both actions should be subject to criticism—but, too, the right to commit both actions should be defended.

What is the nature of the protest against the Quran burning? It will offend people! Why, yes, but so what? It will exacerbate the crisis in Afghanistan. It will incite terrorist action. Indeed, I’m sure it will. But is that any reason not to do it? I thought that it was important to a free, constitutional democracy to stand up for the right of its citizens to be free, to express themselves freely. I thought the United States of America prided itself on doing this. This is why I think that the constitution of the United States is a wonderful, beautiful thing, and though I am not American and have never lived (and will likely never live) in the United States, I admire it greatly and applaud the foundation of a country upon its principles and amendments.

So the people who say You should not do this because it will incite the enemy have it backwards. The purpose of the military arm of the United States of America is surely to protect the safety and the human and constitutional rights of its citizens, to ensure that every American is free to exercise his right to free speech. You should not avoid offending terrorists (Muslim or otherwise) to protect your soldiers; your soldiers are there to protect you from terrorists who seek to prevent you from speaking your mind.

Is the plan of the Florida priest to burn Qurans offensive? Why, yes. It is both literally and figuratively incendiary. But what’s really offensive is that some people might treat this action—the burning of a pile of papers—as sufficient justification to burn buildings and murder people. If you wish to condemn only one of these, then please condemn the latter. If you wish to condemn them both (I encourage it), then please condemn the latter a thousand times harder.

Building a mosque at Ground Zero might make terrorists happy. They might regard it as an ultimate victory, the erection of a monument to their faith at the site of their victory. But they are wrong. Allowing anyone, even if they turned out to be terrorist sympathisers, to build whatever the hell they want at Ground Zero is a victory of the values of liberty. Let everyone who walks by that mosque cast dirty looks; let not one of them cast a stone or grenade or wrecking ball. (If you vandalise it, you aren’t fighting terrorists, you’re becoming terrorists.)

You know what’s really letting the terrorists win? Saying that someone shouldn’t be allowed to offend them. The people who say that the Florida priest should not burn Qurans because it will incense the terrorists are allowing those terrorists’ atrocities to constrain their actions and freedom of speech. That’s what terrorism aims to do. That is letting the terrorists win.

¹ I may refer to these people as these people or these Muslims. Please note that I am doing so in a context-aware fashion. I’m not saying this because I lump all Muslims in with them, or because I think that those people in a voice laden with contempt is an appropriate tone, but because I am talking about a particular group of people. Feel free to be offended by my post, but please try not to misconstrue it.

² See ¹.

Errata: The facility is not at Ground Zero, but near it. I have a few instances of each in the text above, and at was simple error on my part.

See comments: The applicability of the word mosque is debatable. Read the comments and decide for yourself.


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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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