By Mike Dorf
The kulturkampf against the planned Islamic Center within a few blocks of ground zero has morphed into a discussion of the difference between legal rights and their exercise. Let's briefly recap:
1) Some New Yorkers (including some surviving family members of 9/11 victims) and many others were offended at the prospect of an Islamic Center (to include a mosque) being built a few blocks away from ground zero and so they looked for a means to block it, such as seeking to have the current building (site of a Burlington Coat Factory) designated a historic landmark. Others sought (and still seek) an investigation into the finances of the Center, presumably as a means of blocking it. The City Landmarks Comm'n (correctly) rejected landmark status for what was in fact an unremarkable building. Other efforts to block the project continue.
2) Meanwhile, various pundits and organizations have chimed in. Some, like the ADL, say that they are not challenging the legal right of the developers to build the center. They say it is not "a question of rights, but a question of what is right." But others, such as conservative candidate for Congress Randy Altschuler, persists in saying that New Yorkers should "stop the mosque." It's not entirely clear what means Altschuler proposes to use to stop the project. He asks supporters to sign a petition, but the petition is not, as far as the website discloses, addressed to anyone in particular, nor does it make any specific demands. Somewhat more prominently and less abstractly, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio seeks signatures on his own petition to "tell Andrew Cuomo to investigate the proposed . . . mosque in lower Manhattan."
3) In response, various other pundits and a few politicians--most notably NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then recently, President Obama--came out strongly in defense of the cultural center.
4) Some conservative pundits and politicians then accused the President of missing the point. Notably, Sarah Palin said on her Facebook page that "we all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?" I'm not a regular reader of Palin's Facebook page (still waitin fer her ta friend me, dontcha know), but I do know how to scroll down a webpage, and doing so brought me to the former Alaska Governor's July 22 entry, in which she wrote--specifically in response to Mayor Bloomberg's defense of the cultural center--that "it would be an intolerable and tragic mistake to allow such a project sponsored by such an individual to go forward on such hallowed ground." By "allow," presumably she meant something like "for the authorities to allow." I recognize that the Bard of Wasilla has poetic license to invent words and thus perhaps to use words in non-standard ways, but from the context it's patently obvious that she meant for others to allow the project to go forward rather than for the people behind the cultural center to allow themselves to go forward with their plans. Hence, even if "we all know that they have the right to do it" as of now, that wasn't true three weeks ago, when this fact was not known to Palin herself.
5) Accordingly, when President Obama seemed to back off of his initial strong defense of the Islamic center, he was making a fair point: Much of the opposition to the Islamic Center--including by Palin--did seem to challenge the right to build it and not just the wisdom of doing so. Thus, defending free exercise was not a non sequitur, given the prior (and to a large extent ongoing) campaign. We end up with a very narrow disagreement: Palin and Obama now agree that the planners have a right to build the Islamic Center where they plan to build it; Palin says they should not exercise their right; Obama says it's not for him to advise them whether to build it or not. Yet that small difference will undoubtedly be the source of much electioneering and demagoguing between now and November.
So much for the politics of all of this. In a follow-up post (possibly tomorrow), I'll have some thoughts on the question of whether all constitutitonal rights can be defended without defending the underlying exercise of those rights. We're all familiar with free speech cases in which civil libertarians defend the rights of nasty people to say dreadful things, but is this dynamic different with respect to other rights?
I agree with the assessment that this is a political issue and not a legal one: They do have a right to build their mosque; but they ought not exercise their right to do so, because it is too offensive to too many people, me included.ReplyDelete
People who are "offended" might take some time to ask themselves (i.e., sincerely and seriously reflect upon) precisely WHAT offends them and WHY. Perhaps it's lack of imagination or a failure in empathy but I cannot understand why anyone (i.e., any halfway reasonable or sensible person in modest possession of the requisite background knowledge) would find the construction of the Cordoba House "offensive" unless thay believe there is something "offensive" about Islam and Muslims practicing their faith. As I said in a comment on this at Mirror of Justice, "If anything, [ASMA's proposed Cordoba House at PARK51] is a decisive, dramatic and concrete repudiation of the truly un-Islamic character of those who committed terrorist acts in the name of God and Islam. By supporting Muslims of good will and authentic spirituality we enhance the efforts of and express our solidarity with Muslims around the world in their struggle to counter if not eliminate the attraction of Islamist or jihadist ideologies that pervert their religious tradition. Of course there are a number of other things we might do along these lines as well.... Rather than be offended, we should support and celebrate endeavors such as this.*ReplyDelete
The political opposition reeks of Islamaphobia and a tendency to subscribe to the untenable and tendentious assumptions and claims of a "clash of civilizations" thesis.
*For more details of the project, as well as the organization behind it, please see here: http://www.park51.org/vision.htm and here: http://www.asmasociety.org/home/
Like Patrick, I am also befuddled by the nature of the offense that would be given here, though I admit that I haven't followed the opposition closely. The most rational explanations I have seen for that opposition essentially disagree with Patrick et al about the nature of the people behind Park51. I don't know whether there's a basis in fact for that disagreement. But I'd be very surprised if most of the traction the issue has gotten with the public were not simply based on anti-Muslim prejudice.ReplyDelete
Dr. Tiller was killed "in the name of christ." Do those that feel a "great offense" to the building of this mosque also feel offended that christian churches are "offensive to the friends and family of Dr. Tiller" and ought not be built near the site of his death (he was shot in a church, for those unaware)? Somehow I doubt it.ReplyDelete
Patrick and Mike are being far to polite by not using the most apt word for these people "feeling offense" - bigotry.
I realize this may be a poor analogy, but should we have told Martin Luther King Jr. that even though he and his followers had a civil right to march on Selma, that they should not have exercised that right because so many Americans were against it and it would lead to violence?ReplyDelete
What if, in the fifties, a group of African-Americans had wanted to build a baptist church in a white neighborhood next to a catholic church. Should the President have asked them not to exercise that right because so many American would have been upset by the action?
Another issue here that does not seem to be getting discussed is the fact that by finding it "in poor taste" to build the mosque next to the site of the terrorist attack, are we not implying an association of all Muslims with those terrorists?
I think the "wisdom" argument depends upon the context in which it arises. If I were the lawyer for the Cordoba project, I might very well have advised them that it would be "wiser" to build the project a few blocks away, or at very least to have consulted more effectively with possible opponents before building it. But for people who have been opposed to the project from the start to frame it as an issue of voluntary nonexercise of rights is perhaps a bit too clever: they seem to be suggesting, withdraw voluntarily, or we will block it for you. That's a little different, and a little more scary.ReplyDelete
P.S. Michael I'm happy to recommend you as a friend to Sarah Palin, but I have to confess, she pays little attention to my comments too . . .ReplyDelete
For those who cannot think of any reason for the offense other than bigotry, let me ask you this: suppose the Japanese Government decides to build a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor, after buying the land there. Not at the invitation of the U.S. or Hawaii government and people, but directly in spite of widespread protests. Or the British government builds a museum on the site of the Boston Massacre. Is it only that we are bigoted against the Japanese and British that people might protest the wisdom of the move?ReplyDelete
While some may consider my comment to be concealed bigotry or lacking in imagination, and they may well be... I don't know, yet I still remain opposed to the mosque being built there. It must be remembered that despite our intellectual pretensions to the contrary, people are generally 90% emotion and 10% intellect. Consequently, with me, it is a gut feeling... which tjchiang's comment captures so well.ReplyDelete
In fact, it may be that we are beginning to experience Samuel Huntington's 'clash of civilizations' right here in the United States.ReplyDelete
tjchiang, you have made my point for me with the Shinto shrine analogy. The Japanese people as a nation bombed Pearl Harbor, not Japanese Americans. In the case of the World Trade Center, it was a radical arm of Islam that attacked, not the Islam people as a whole, and not Muslim Americans. This is my problem, by saying the mosque should not be built you are implying that all Muslims acted as a group, just as the people of Japan acted as a group when attacking Pearl Harbor. In so doing, you are condemning all Muslims.ReplyDelete
There's actually an interesting argument whether you can hold the Japanese people responsible for Pearl Harbor--it wasn't a democracy and few if any people outside the Government and the pilots knew about it in advance--but you make a worthwhile point nonetheless.ReplyDelete
In that case, Michael Livingston, the same thing could be said for Germans re World War 2 ... nice intellectual construct--devoid of meaningReplyDelete
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