Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mosque and motive

On the heels of my go-round trying to be the resented moderate voice as regards John Milbank’s alleged wistful harking back to Empire, I stumbled on a post at Gnosis and Noesis which referred me to (and critiqued) the Maverick Philosopher's having weighed in, back in July, about the much-maligned "Mosque at Ground Zero," Cordoba House. Bill Vallicella wrote:
I rather doubt that the Founders had Islam in mind when they ensured the right to the free exercise of religion.
I was nonplussed by this astonishing "doubt," and to his credit Vallicella hastened to confess that he'd been corrected in an addendum two days later. But, he went on,
I do not retract my main point, which is that we ought to give careful thought to the question whether, as I put it above, "Islam counts as a religion in a sufficiently robust sense of the term to justify affording it full First Amendment protection." I am raising this as a question.
Oh! just a question! That's different. Because, you know, for a second I thought Vallicella might have like an opinion about this, which made my liberal knee start to go all jerky. But now I see, he's just innocently raising, you know, a question, somethin' to think about.

I am not used to thinking of the Maverick Philosopher as disingenuous, and perhaps I am being uncharitable. I am relieved that in the face of empirical evidence, Vallicella partially recanted; but I remain frankly appalled that this would have seemed to be an empirical question in the first place. Vallicella offers the argument that Islam is "as much a political ideology as a religion." It is closer to the truth to say that there are political formulations of Islam, some of them quite powerful at present. I admit that there is an element of pedantry in insisting on such distinctions. I am happy to be pedantic in this case.

But something is strange. Why am I appalled by Vallicella's anti-Islamic stance and not by Milbank's? Why do I have two different responses to these two thinkers, both of whom I admire, who rather similarly characterize Islam in ways I think are questionable? I find myself moved to defend Milbank from his severest detractors, but in Vallicella's case I am just blown away by his overstatement.

Part of it is that I see Milbank as more nuanced, yes. Part of it is that Vallicella is taking a stance on a domestic, U.S. issue, and it is one whose subtext I think is very easy to discern. What, exactly, is it about the "Mosque at Ground Zero" that makes it, in Vallicella's terms, "this abomination"? Or even a "needless provocation"?

Milbank, whatever the excesses or even wrongness of any of his stances, regards the Christian-Islamic encounter as, well, a religious encounter. He may be all too ready to blur the line between politics and religion (and in fact the line is blurry), but Vallicella on the other hand is ready to etch it in stone-- for these purposes, anyway.

The question that is to be asked (about this specific domestic issue) is: Assuming one does object to the proposed Islamic Center (which yes, does include a mosque), what exactly is the objection? To this, there can be--almost--only one answer, unless one is just referring to other people's objections, in which case one can appeal to "majority rule."

But if one is answering for oneself, the only answer is: It feels inappropriate, wrong, offensive, whatever, to have an Islamic building so close to this place where Islamic people carried out a terrorist attack. That. Is. It. This is the final, un-further-analyzable attitude at the bottom of people's resistance to the building. And it is unsupportable, unless one grants that Islam=Islamic terrorism, "at least in some people's eyes."

But wait! “According to polls,” as we hear, many who object to the building of the Cordoba House would be fine, just fine, with the construction of a mosque within blocks of their home. It’s the WTC site—well, a certain radius around it—that is somehow sacred and “inappropriate” for Cordoba House. Presumably these folks don’t believe that all Islam = Islamic terror, or they wouldn’t be OK—or say they are OK—with such a mosque near their homes. Are they just being inconsistent? Are they lying?

I can only navigate this contradiction by means of some shameless psychoanalyzing of the motives of strangers (and I'm prepared to be better informed if anyone cares to school me). No, they’re not lying about whether they’d welcome (or at least countenance) a mosque next door. What they’re in bad faith about is their reasons for opposing the building of Cordoba House. They actually don’t see that their reaction boils down to believing that the same enemy who jihadjacked those planes is now preparing to build a 13-story al-Qaeda recruitment center at Ground Zero. Of course in any given case there could be variations on this, including the likelihood that they’re betting no one will call their bluff about a mosque in their own neighborhood, or the obvious psychological truism that human beings respond differently to hypotheticals (an imaginary mosque down their own street) than they do to imminent possibilities (a real mosque 2 blocks from the WTC site).

Presumably one could believe that there is a difference between Islam and Islamic terrorism, but still hold that the construction of the mosque, whoever its backers, would be seen by “our enemies” as a sign of victory. On these premises one reasonable response might be to wish to deny them this satisfaction, perhaps even this tactical advantage. This rationale has the advantage of being, for once, discernibly different from attributing (consciously or not) murderous anti-Americanism to every Muslim in the world. It suffers from being, as far as I know, not actually propounded by any of the actual opponents of Cordoba House.

The same goes for another possible objection, which was my own when I first heard about a "mosque at ground zero," and assumed that "at" meant, you know, at. Namely: I assumed that any projects there would be secular. Once I saw the actual location of Cordoba House (two blocks away and not actually visible from the WTC site) this objection evaporated.

To recapitulate: the possible reasons for opposing the building of the Cordoba House are:
1- They attacked us. Now they want to build a mosque?!

2- Of course they have the "right" to build a mosque, but it's inflammatory and "needlessly provocative." They should be more sensitive to our feelings.

3- I would be fine with a mosque a few blocks from my own home, but that Manhattan real estate is sacred ground.

4- I don't oppose the mosque personally, but nearly 70% of Americans do. Them's the breaks.

4a- Nearly 70% of Americans are bigots, and we'd best not piss them off too much.

5- Of course not all Muslims are our enemy; of course it is a minority who rejoiced at the 9/11 attacks, a small minority who support such efforts, and a tiny minority who actually carry them out. But this minority will see the mosque, no matter who builds it, as a victory for themselves and a sign of weakness on our part.

6- Wtf is a house of worship of any sort doing going up by Ground Zero? Any religious building of any sort is inappropriate. It was a national, not a religious, catastrophe.
(If there are any other rationales, I'd be grateful to have them pointed out.)

Reason 2 collapses into reason 1. So does reason 3, but with the addition of being incoherent. Reason 4 (and 4a) reduces to "nearly 70% of Americans believe in Reason 1, and that's enough."

Reasons 5 and 6 I've not actually heard anyone maintain; I had to make them up in an effort to try to come up with a rationale that did not reduce to Reason 1. Reason 6 fails because in fact there are plenty of houses of worship (including mosques) in NYC (it's well known that a Christian church was damaged on 9/11). As for Reason 5, this is the only one I can imagine being remotely defensible. There remain counterarguments, for instance a question of what message(s) preventing the building of the mosque sends.

But the main point here is that 2/3 of these reasons reduce to an equation of "Muslims" with "our enemy." This is what needs underscoring. These are the de facto grounds for opposing Cordoba House. If one claims to distinguish between Islam in general and an enclave of terrorists who hijack planes and blow up buildings, but one still opposes Cordoba House, the question to be asked is, "Why?" And the response will reveal that either one does oneself actually identify Islam in general as the enemy, or else believes that this equation, being widely (albeit perhaps regrettably) held, should be respected, instead of combated.

I know that in the "art of the possible," one must choose the ditches in which one is willing to die. I can imagine deciding that the erection of building in Manhattan is not the ideal teaching moment to address nearly 70% of Americans who have apparently bought into a stupid and unreflective identification of approximately 1.6 billion Muslims as The Enemy.

This brings me to the last reason to variation 4a. This is that, however it is interpreted by Muslims, the vast majority of Americans will deem this an act of arrogance by Our Great Enemy, and that it will inflame anti-Islamic sentiment stateside.

To this I reply, that ship seems to me to have sailed. But if we assume the argument's validity, the corollary surely follows: if the building is blocked on these grounds, it will be a blot on the American character, not to mention possibly further emboldening the enemies of genuine diversity and toleration.

I do not believe--and I do not want to believe--that 70% of my fellow citizens are bigots and slaves to a reactionary panic. While I do maintain that almost every rationale for opposing the mosque reduces to equating Islam per se with "al Qaeda and its allies," I do not believe that most Americans consciously make this equation, and do not really notice that it is entailed by their logic. I want to believe that they can reflect on the underlying rationale of their reactions, and make a different choice. Otherwise, the whole conception of Cordoba House will remain what it has become: a zero-sum game in which there will be winners and losers, whether construction goes ahead or not. It is, in fine, war in miniature. Which means, whatever the outcome, we will have all already lost. There would be for us only the possibility of our defeat being noble or ignoble.


  1. Bill's patella is in good working order. Anything liberals might be for he will against it because they are wrong about everything. It's all very symmetrical and neat and unfortunately reflects none of the complexities of real life. In apophastic mode he muses whether Islam is a religion at all and proceeds to take his perplexity to the mystic court of the 'Founders'. We all should nod our heads like car-toy dogs.

    There already is a mosque on those premises actually in operation. An official inauguration will no doubt bring crowing from the mad mullahs. Too bad, good example is expensive.

  2. ombh~~ I realize I broke a rule of mine in th epost, using the egregious textspeak ("wtf"), but if I did not have such a rule I would certainly respond "LOL" to your diagnosis of Vallicella's patella (hey! that rhymes! I wonder if we could turn it into an established figure of thought, like Ockham's razor).

    I suppose I should aspire to have said about me what I would say about the Maverick Philosopher: He's right about a lot of things, anyway, even if he's crazy-making wrong sometimes. I quite related to Amod's post a while ago to the effect that conservative thought has a strong attraction-- more so than a lot of "liberal" thought, even though my instincts are almost all to the left.

  3. Use a tightly rolled copy of Rerum Novarum as a patella tester and stand well to the side.

    The Conservative/Liberal dyad means different things in different countries. With a majoritarian electoral system you can get either polarisation or a drift to the middle where the parties steal policies from each other and indulge in triangulation to detach the floating voter. It tends to make for very crude politics. Is America now in a dangerous volatile state? Muslims have been around for a while but the constellation as an 'other' seems to have just occured. The next presidential election will be very interesting.

  4. On Vallicella's latest shock horror on Muslims - the cab drivers of Minnesota that won't take booze aboard - to get a full picture this item of news is important: