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Friday, September 10, 2010

Debating the Ground Zero Mosque

There has been a cacophony of voices concerning the building of the mosque two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.  Libertarians, who believe that all of us have a fundamental right to do what we want with what we own as long as we don't violate someone else's right to do the same, have, for the most part, come out in favor of the mosque, such as the Libertarian Party candidate for mayor of New York.  Kantian/Rawlsian egalitarians, who, like libertarians, embrace individual autonomy but are more likely to support government programs that promote equal rights, have also voiced support on behalf of the proposed mosque, such as recent editorials in New York Times and Christian Century.  (I confess that the Century's editorial was something of a disappointment to me.  I would have hoped that Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God might have informed its argument instead. The editorial did make a passing reference to the freedom that God grants to all human beings, but that sounds more like something John Locke would say than Jesus).

In my opinion one of the more interesting aspects of the debate is that so many people frame their arguments in utilitarian terms. You may recall from an earlier post that utilitarians believe that when it comes to making choices between various alternatives, the right thing to do is select the option that provides the greatest utility or pleasure for the greatest number of people.  That is, an action is considered just if it increases happiness and unjust if it causes suffering.  So, for example, some have argued that because the building the mosque will cause so much emotional pain, especially among those who lost loved ones on 9/11, it shouldn't be built.  Others have argued that its construction will help promote the growth of a religious worldview that is incompatible with American values such as democracy and will thus hurt America in the long run (note: similar arguments were made against the "Catholic menace" back in the 19th-century, Chinese immigrants in the early 20th-century and Japanese-Americans during WW II).  Still others have argued that the imam behind the mosque's construction is really a closet radical, who will promote a form of Islam that condones terrorism and, as such, be bad for America.

Interestingly, some terrorist experts argue that the debate over the mosque is fueling the growth of Islamist terrorism both at home and overseas, concluding that the best thing to do from a practical point of view is to build the mosque.  For example, Evan Kohlman, who monitors radical Islamic chat rooms and websites for the New-York based security firm Flashpoint Global Partners, notes that the Two-blocks-from-Ground Zero mosque has become the number one topic in these chat rooms and websites and is being seen by some Islamists as proof that the West is at war with Islam:
"Extremists are encouraging all this, with glee. It is their sense that by doing this that Americans are going to alienate American Muslims to the point where even relatively moderate Muslims are going to be pushed into joining extremist movements like al-Qaida. They couldn't be happier."
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has jumped into the fray in arguing that building the mosque will benefit American society in the long run because freedom of expression and association helps promote creativity.  While watching a Broadway production at the White House, he remarked
"Feeling the pulsating energy of this performance was such a vivid reminder of America's most important competitive advantage: the sheer creative energy that comes when you mix all our diverse people and cultures together. We live in an age when the most valuable asset any economy can have is the ability to be creative... And where does this creativity come from?
"I like the way Newsweek described it in a recent essay on creativity: "To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result)."
"And where does divergent thinking come from? It comes from being exposed to divergent ideas and cultures and people and intellectual disciplines... which is why I'm glad the mosque was approved... Countries that choke themselves off from exposure to different cultures, faiths and ideas will never invent the next Google or a cancer cure, let alone export a musical or body of literature that would bring enjoyment to children everywhere."
No doubt some of the folks who framed their arguments in utilitarian terms did so because they are utilitarians or because they believe that their positions might gain wider appeal than if they draw on a particularistic moral tradition (e.g., Christianity).  I suspect that others, however, did so because they were reluctant or embarrassed to state the real reasons why they support or oppose the building of the mosque.  Reframing one's argument in utilitarian terms doesn't always work out quite the way one hopes it will, however.  For example, when Michael Sandel was a graduate student at Oxford, there were separate colleges for women and men, and there were rules against men staying overnight in the women's rooms.  While he was there a reform movement emerged that sought to relax the rules, but at St. Anne's College (and all-woman's college) many of the older women on the faculty were opposed on moral grounds.  They were embarrassed to express the real reasons for their objections, however, so they framed their opposition in utilitarian terms instead.  They argued that if men stayed overnight, the costs to the college would increase.  Mattresses would incur more wear and tear, and if the men took showers, they'd use more hot water.  In the end, a compromise was arrived at.  Each woman could have an overnight guest three nights a week as long as they paid fifty pence per night to cover the extra costs.  The next day the Guardian's headline read, "St. Annes Girls: Fifty Pence a Night!"

Utilitarian reasoning is suspect on other grounds too.  How is utility defined?  Should some pleasures be accorded a higher value than others? Who decides? A simple majority? In that case, we could argue that Southern Whites behaved justly by doing all they could to keep African-Americans "in their place" since they (i.e., Southern Whites) derived considerable utility from the institution of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that institutionalized racial discrimination throughout the South after the Civil War.

One person who was interviewed by the New York Times remarked that while he believed that the Muslim community had every right to build the mosque but he just wished they would build it somewhere else. 
“Freedom of religion is one of the guarantees we give in this country, so they are free to worship where they chose.  I just think it’s very bad manners on their part to be so insensitive as to put a mosque in that area.”
While its hard to know the actual reasons lying behind this statement, I believe that this individual is drawing on some moral worldview (religious or otherwise) that provides him with a sense of what constitutes being a good citizen in today's world.  And while I think emotions are running a little too high at the moment to have a reasoned debate about the mosque, in the long run it would probably be helpful to have a public debate about what role religion plays in contributing to the functioning of a good society.  What ends do religious beliefs and practices serve?  What qualities of character do they promote and how (or do) they contribute to society as a whole?  If we seriously take up these questions, then perhaps we will gain a better understanding as to whether (and how) religious belief is deserving of free expression.  I confess that I'm not holding my breath, however.

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