Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mosque outrage

The talk about a mosque at Ground Zero seems like a complete non-story, since it's not a mosque, it's not at Ground Zero, and it is to be built on private property in a free country. Two things about it are interesting though. One of these is the fact that it has become a story, partly because some people seem to be little more than generators of some substance that needs to be spewed out and that can only be discharged in the form of words relating to an item in the news. It's also seemingly because no one is ever reported as being anything but either for the mosque or against it. So if you say that you believe in freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom to do what you want on your own property as long as it's legal, then you are reported as being "for the mosque." There aren't allowed to be more than two sides to any issue and whoever complains about something first gets to dictate what the issue is.

The other interesting thing is that this is an issue that brings up the question of insults. Imagine that someone did want to build an actual mosque at (not just near) Ground Zero. Imagine further that it was not a nice Sufi imam behind the plan but an al Qaeda sympathizer. Wouldn't this be at best insensitive and at worst horribly insulting to the victims of the September 11th attacks? It seems to me that the US Constitution would protect the right to build such a mosque in such a place, but it wouldn't be a non-story. And so, it seems to me, just pointing out that we have freedom of religion, etc., is perhaps not the best response to the opponents of the Cordoba Initiative's Community Center. It is also helpful to point out, as has been done, that it isn't actually a mosque, isn't actually at Ground Zero, Muslims are not the same thing as terrorists, etc.

Because of all this, the proposed center is not an insult to the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. Even if some people think it is. What is or is not an insult is not determined solely by how the offended party feels. The relevant consideration is more something like how a reasonable person, informed of all the pertinent facts, would feel. So the fact that some people could be caused to feel offended by just about anything is neither here nor there. The limits of the right to insult are hard to draw, but fortunately we don't need to do so in this case.


  1. "What is or is not an insult is not determined solely by how the offended party feels." Right. And as far as I can tell, the general cultural ignorance about Islam makes a lot of Americans, on this and related issues, grossly unreasonable. Dennett gave a TED talk a few years ago, after his book Breaking the Spell, where he claimed (outrageously?) that standardized education in world religions should be a mandatory part of the curriculum for all children in a democratic society. Whatever you think of his activities as a "bright," I think he's got to be right about this.

  2. I agree completely. Everyone should learn about the major world religions in high school. And probably again in college.