While Gnu Atheists share certain opinions about evidence, reason, and faith, by no means do they march in intellectual lockstep. Nowhere is this more evident than in this week’s disagreement between Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris about the proposed Islamic cultural center (which includes prayer facilities) near Ground Zero in New York City.
Over at Slate, Hitchens, while expressing reservations about the center’s proposed imam, argues that banning the center not only violates the First Amendment, but, by caving in to the wounded feelings of 9/11 survivors, “borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail”. He’s all in favor of letting it go forward.
Another of the “horsemen,” Sam Harris, isn’t so sure. At The Daily Beast, he argues that there’s a problem—the nature of Islam:
And honest reasoning declares that there is much that is objectionable—and, frankly, terrifying—about the religion of Islam and about the state of discourse among Muslims living in the West, and it is decidedly inconvenient that discussing these facts publicly is considered a sign of “intolerance” by well-intentioned liberals, in part because such criticism resonates with the actual bigotry of not-so-well-intentioned conservatives. I can see no remedy for this, however, apart from simply ramming the crucial points home, again and again. . .
. . . Yes, it is true that the Old Testament contains even greater barbarism—but there are obvious historical and theological reasons why it inspires far less Jewish and Christian violence today. Anyone who elides these distinctions, or who acknowledges the problem of jihad and Muslim terrorism only to swiftly mention the Crusades, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the Tamil Tigers, and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, is simply not thinking honestly about the problem of Islam.
In the end, he’s ambivalent about whether the center should be built:
The claim that the events of September 11, 2001, had “nothing to do with Islam” is an abject and destabilizing lie. This murder of 3,000 innocents was viewed as a victory for the One True Faith by millions of Muslims throughout the world (even, idiotically, by those who think it was perpetrated by the Mossad). And the erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory—and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice. This may not be reason enough for the supporters of this mosque to reconsider their project. And perhaps they shouldn’t. Perhaps there is some form of Islam that could issue from this site that would be better, all things considered, than simply not building another mosque in the first place. But this leads me to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: American Muslims should be absolutely free to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero; but the ones who should do it probably wouldn’t want to.
He has some good points. Of all the major religions, I find Islam—in its bellicosity, its subjugation of women, its reliance on texts filled with hate and horror (and yes, I know the Old Testament has its gruesome parts and vengeful God), and the desire of many adherents to install Islamic law in their countries—the most repugnant. And I don’t see much evidence of the friendlier, kinder Islam touted by accommodationists. Do remember that 40% of British Muslims want sharia law introduced into the UK. And where was moderate Islam nine years ago? I saw lots of worldwide celebration after September 11, but few condemnations of the perpetrators, and none from Islamic countries. (Yes, I know there must have been a few of them, but they weren’t exactly prominent.)
Americans like Obama (who, after all, can’t say otherwise) deliberately overlook the problems with Islam. One of my friends even argued that as a faith, it’s no worse than Quakerism. To somebody who thinks that, nothing more can be said.
Nevertheless, while not all faiths are equal in content, they are, and should be, equal under law. It would simply be wrong to prohibit a mosque/cultural center from being built on private property, or to use “landmark” provisions of the law to fight it. Freedom of religion, like freedom of speech, is a non-negotiable, bedrock principle of our country. But I have no confidence that the center’s construction will thrill the world’s Muslims with our tolerance. That’s wishful thinking, not supported by a scintilla of evidence. If anything, I think it’s more likely that militant Islam will see it as a victory.
Do I oppose the center’s construction? No. Do I think that building it on that site is a good idea? No. It’s no better an idea than would be building an American cultural center near Ground Zero in Hiroshima. It was Islam, after all, that propelled those planes into the World Trade Center nine years ago.