Thursday, August 05, 2010

Another red herring: churches in Saudi Arabia and the "Ground Zero Mosque"

Some people are making a large to-do about the building of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, having taken to calling it the "Ground Zero Mosque". This particular bit of xenophobia came into my own awareness back on July 20, 2010, with the whole "Sarah Palin refudiate tweet" story broke in which she tweeted:
Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refudiate the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real
The ensuing brouhaha was stoked by her refusal to own up to her continued misuse of the English language -- something that seems to align with this notion of ignorant politicians being somehow better for the country that has become inculcated among certain parts of the electorate, especially as the November elections approach and candidates (especially on the right) appear to be trying to woo Tea Party members. In my opinion, the whole mini-fracas over the use of "refudiate," the subsequently incorrect use of "refute," followed by the self-comparison with Shakespeare all spoke more to a large public view of the saccharine quality of Sarah Palin as opposed to the veracity of the argument she was forwarding. However, in the weeks since the former Alaskan governor asked "peaceful New Yorkers" (who never were her constituents, and are often portrayed as being godless, socialist, liberal, not part of "real America", etc.) to reject the "Ground Zero mosque plan", other right-wing pundits and politicians have stepped up to the same batter's box, and decried the plan to build the "Ground Zero mosque".

Perhaps in an attempt to one-up Sarah Palin, former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, made a nationalist, Christianist, populist appeal by making an equivalency of mosque-building in Manhattan with church-building in Saudi Arabia:
Those Islamists and their apologists who argue for "religious toleration" are arrogantly dishonest. They ignore the fact that more than 100 mosques already exist in New York City. Meanwhile, there are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia. In fact no Christian or Jew can even enter Mecca.

When I heard this, I was thinking, "Okay... what?" The logic here seems to imply that since a specific country passes its own laws about religious freedom (or lack thereof), the United States retaliate by limiting religious freedoms? And to people who aren't citizens of that country, but who follow the primary faith of that country?

And then Newt talks about how the United States should not allow sharia law. Ummm... Newt, sharia law is -- roughly speaking -- religious law, and excluding one religion over all others is a religious law, which is analogous to being sharia. Even if you justify it with the flawed logic of, "they are doing it, so we need to do it too," is basing a law on sharia, and is therefore analogous to passing sharia law. If you follow the flawed logic of "this is a Christian nation," and therefore provide a government preference for Christian-based laws, then you are making laws analogous to sharia law.

All this from a person who has, in the past, said that we shouldn't be governed by international laws. Well, Newt, basing a national law on the law of another nation is governing by non-national standards. That the laws to which you refer dictate who (including international visitors) is allowed in which parts of Saudi Arabia and what can be built there (including houses of worship to international gods) are the laws of Saudi Arabia, and creating reactionary laws against them is tantamount to being governed by international laws.

Also, coming from a person who has attested to a preference for a free-market, the sanctity of private property, the non-interference of government, the desire to have small-government, and the desire to follow the US Constitution, the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy is really an example of competing rhetorical values being pitted against each other. If Newt were for the above points, then he should agree that the purchase -- or even lease -- of a private piece of land should not come under the scrutiny of government, unless it could be proved that it was the site of illegal activity (which being Islamic and opening a community center are not). If Newt were for the above points, then he should also agree that the government should not be incited to attempt to seize the property via immanent domain (since it would go against the "no illegal search and seizure" part of the Constitution, aka the 4th Amendment).

Recently, too, the Anti-Defamation League has also come in against the building of the "Ground Zero Mosque," stating -- quite openly hypocritically -- that while they are for religious freedom, they just aren't for religious freedom in this case:
We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths – to build community centers and houses of worship.

We categorically reject appeals to bigotry on the basis of religion, and condemn those whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry.

However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel – and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.
The statement then goes on to say that the whole brouhaha about the building of this mosque is ruining any chance for healing, but places the blame not on the demagogues who are doing the actual spoilage, but upon the target of that demagoguery. In their defense, the ADL did not continue to explicitly build upon the non-sequitur point of linking the desire not to build it because of what another country is doing, however, their final paragraph makes their stance much more explicitly closer to that of the right-wing ideologues that perpetuate the xenophobia.

Of course, none of the points by Palin, Gingrich, or the ADL actually address what I consider the pertinent points:
  1. The "Ground Zero Mosque" is located two blocks away from Ground Zero, and one cannot actually see the site (as if this latter part has any bearing on the issue anyway),
  2. Various city government officials, committees, and councils -- as well as the mayor -- have agreed to the plans of the "Ground Zero Mosque",
  3. The "Ground Zero Mosque" isn't primarily a mosque, but is a community center, and won't be minaret-clad houses of worship, and
  4. There are other Islamic places of worship near Ground Zero that no one is protesting (indicating -- at least to yours truly -- that this whole thing is a red herring to stoke nationalism and xenophobia),
The Economist also notes this false equivalency of Gingrich's, taking him to task for his lack of intellectual honesty:
No such plea of mitigation can be entered on behalf of Mr Gingrich. The former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives may or may not have presidential pretensions, but he certainly has intellectual ones. That makes it impossible to excuse the mean spirit and scrambled logic of his assertion that “there should be no mosque near ground zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia”. Come again? Why hold the rights of Americans who happen to be Muslim hostage to the policy of a foreign country that happens also to be Muslim? To Mr Gingrich, it seems, an American Muslim is a Muslim first and an American second. Al-Qaeda would doubtless concur.

Mr Gingrich also objects to the centre’s name. Imam Feisal says he chose “Cordoba” in recollection of a time when the rest of Europe had sunk into the Dark Ages but Muslims, Jews and Christians created an oasis of art, culture and science. Mr Gingrich sees only a “deliberate insult”, a reminder of a period when Muslim conquerors ruled Spain. Like Mr bin Laden, Mr Gingrich is apparently still relitigating the victories and defeats of religious wars fought in Europe and the Middle East centuries ago. He should rejoin the modern world, before he does real harm.
One final way of framing what Gingrich proposed is to use his own words, only slightly altered:

Those Roman Catholics and their apologists who argue for "religious toleration" are arrogantly dishonest. They ignore the fact that more than 100 churches already exist in New York City. Meanwhile, there are no mosques or synagogues in all of Vatican City. Although Muslims and Jews can enter the city, access much of its wonders is restricted.

Yes, I realize that Vatican City is much smaller than Saudi Arabia. However, Newt's point wasn't about the size of Saudi Arabia, but of its lack of churches and synagogues.

Yes, I realize that there is a mosque (quite large in fact) and a synagogue (also large) in Rome. However, the Vatican is its own sovereign country, nestled inside the city of Rome. It has its own military, its own police force, and its own government. Newt's point wasn't about the proximity of a church or synagogue to Saudi Arabia, but of its lack of these buildings.

Yes, I realize that the Vatican City is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, analogously like Mecca is one of the holiest cities in Islam (right up there with Medina). However, Newt wasn't talking about the holiness of the city, merely its lack of a church or synagogue in Saudi Arabia.

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