As the Park 51 controversy was being manufactured, prominent atheist Sam Harris wrote an article for the Washington Post arguing against the construction of an Islamic community center on the site.
Mr. Harris’ position in a nutshell is that although there are (and should be) no legal grounds to oppose the building of a mosque in lower Manhattan, it would nevertheless be in poor taste because Muslims believe in a particularly offensive book of myths and that the mosque would “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.”
First, I’m not too convinced that the “problem of Islam” is categorically different from the problem of Judaism or Christianity. Harris thinks that there are “obvious historical reasons why [the Old Testament] inspires far less Jewish and Christian violence today.” He doesn’t give any specific examples, however, and in any case I don’t agree that Islam inspires more violence than Judaism or Christianity. The invasion of Iraq, for example, was originally framed in terms of a Crusade — no doubt an important justification in the hearts of many a Christian soldier. And I honestly don’t expect al-Qaeda ever to achieve anything close to the death toll resulting from that particular world historical crime. And Harris merely waves his hands over ongoing Zionist crimes in Palestine.
Secondly, regarding the argument that building a mosque would be taken as a symbol of victory among “Muslims”, and that they would thereby think that liberal values of religious tolerance are decadent and cowardly — I don’t understand this at all. I mean, who the fuck cares how it might be evaluated by this or that group? Either it is just to protect religious freedoms or it isn’t. If some group interprets a commitment to religious tolerance as a sign of weakness, are we supposed to reflexively agree with them? I mean, Harris doesn’t want to agree with jihadis about anything else — why this?
Moreover, I’m also not convinced that the construction of the mosque will be such a boon to jihadis. I rather expect that strengthening traditions of religious tolerance and pluralism will undermine extreme opposition to the “West” because it undermines the impression that such Enlightenment ideals are only employed cynically and hypocritically.
Thirdly, even though he is careful to say that there should be no legal obstacle in the way of building a Mosque in lower Manhattan, this categorically unique “problem of Islam” talk can just as easily be applied to other ideological positions — something about which the Atheist Harris should be wary. For example, I have heard similar arguments leveled against the particular “problem of Atheism” — that it is impossible to be moral as an atheist, that the greatest mass murderers in history were atheists, etc.
Someone defending Harris’ thesis might counter that the supposedly unique “problem of Islam” arises out of the particulars of the Qu’ran and Islamic traditions. And of course it is true that there are certain features of the tradition that present particular problems, such as a stringent doctrinal opposition to any “separation of church and state”.
But while it is true that the letter of Islamic law, so to speak, endorse dark enterprises – killing infidels, etc. – so too do the books of Moses encourage the indiscriminate slaughter of non-Jews in the pursuit of establishing a religious kingdom.
But just as Jews aren’t some monolithic entity that all interpret and respond to their tradition in the same way, so too with Muslims. Communities of “Muslims” respond to and interpret their tradition in wildly different ways over time and space – just as do Jews and Christians.
To take it from a different angle: Let’s grant that it is true that there is no separation of Church and State according to the Qu’ran and to Islamic tradition generally. But what is the relevance of this fact? Is it meant to suggest that every person who calls themselves a “Muslim” today wants to take over the civil institutions and establish Shari’a law? It is a caricature, I submit. Just as it would be a caricature to suggest that every (male) Jew today believes that it is his duty to impregnate his daughters if that is the only practical way to acquire an heir.
The Qu’ran, read literally as the word of God whispered into a particular man’s ear by the Angel Gabriel, is essentially problematic. This post is not meant to defend Islam on its own terms – I just doubt Harris’ claim that Islam is essentially different from the other Abrahamic religions in terms of the problems arising from the doctrinal / exegetical particularities of each.
It is important to be on guard against such arguments. It is too easy to think of “them” as categorically different then “us”, and such thinking is requisite to justify the incoherent U.S.-led global war on terror, which for a decade has rained death and misery upon untold numbers of Muslims in at least 5 countries, and has undermined the civil liberties of Muslims here in the U.S.