Sam Harris and the “Ground Zero Mosque”

I agree with much of what Sam Harris writes. When I don’t agree, it’s usually a question of degree. For instance, Harris recently ignited debate at his TED talk, in which he advocated science as an arbiter of moral decisions. While I support this effort in principle, I fear Harris is a bit too optimistic on the prospects of science to  develop from a historically descriptive practice to a normative one, or, to put it another way, to rise above Hume’s (in)famous “is-ought” problem. In fact, one could review history and make a plausible case that science is often at its worse when it is used prescriptively. (The expected counterargument is that those examples are not examples of science, but pseudoscience used to further decidedly non-scientific agendas.)

I am not writing this to debate science’s role in morality, though. I believe a thoughtful debate can be had there. Rather, I am reacting to Harris’ recent article, Ground Zero Mosque from The Daily Beast. His first two sentences perhaps best sum up his position:

Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself.

Harris’ answer, in case the obviousness escaped you, is no.

First of all, it’s disappointing that Harris immediately conflates (thought not as much as his editor) the cultural center, now officially known as Park51 (due to the delicate sensibilities of certain outspoken political candidates with a penchant for revisionist history) and the mosque/prayer room that will be contained within.

I don’t know if YMCAs have official chapels or not, but I do know that at least one congregation calls its home at a Y. Antioch calls itself “the church of the Y”. It meets in one of the gyms at the Countryside YMCA in Lebanon, OH, reportedly the largest YMCA center in the country, at 218,000 square feet. This Y (and I assume many others) hold several bible study sessions. If Sam Harris were writing an article about the Countryside YMCA, would he call it the ‘218,000 square foot church and Christian cultural center’?

With 21 branches or so, New York City’s is called the “largest YMCA in the world”. Their motto: “We’re Here For Good”, an obvious double-meaning which one needn’t wonder what the ramifications would be were it used by a Muslim community center.

Perhaps comparing Park51 to the Y is unfair, because the Y has grown well beyond its Christian mission in many ways. You could be forgiven for not knowing what the ‘C’ in YMCA stands for, given their diverse membership and the many secular activities they sponsor. Of course, they also have the happy coincidence that around 75% of the US population calls itself Christian.

I’ve never been to a Jewish Community Center. I don’t know if anyone conducts Jewish prayer services at them, or if that’s even permitted under Judaism. What I am sure of, though, is that they do celebrate Jewish holidays, and I’m certain there’s a fair bit informal theological discussion going on among at least some of the membership. I’m also sure that, though Sam Harris may have little love for the religion of Judaism, he wouldn’t accuse the worldwide JCC membership of plotting to wipe out the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. Then again, perhaps they don’t need to, thanks to the reported actions of their religious (if not perfectly genetic) forebears. But as Harris points out, the punishment for violation of any of the Ten Commandments, applicable to both Judaism and Christianity, is death, and Jesus said little to contradict it (and, I might add, the ‘cast the first stone’ anecdote is generally believed to be a 4th century addition).

I therefore wouldn’t expect any reasonable person to paint all Muslims as basically bound by belief to slaughter infidels until Islam reigns as the one religion on earth, even if that’s exactly what the Koran and Hadith command. Such a position would beggar belief: that there are 2.5 to 7 million Muslims in this country, including two members of Congress, who openly or secretly believe it is their God’s commandment that they convert or slay every non-Muslim among them.

I am apostate Christian, but somehow the members of my family have found a way to keep from putting me to death. To read Harris, I should consider myself lucky to be alive. Surely I shouldn’t associate with anyone who adheres to a faith that makes such pronouncements.

How does Sam Harris get out of the house every day? Ah, he gets to exploit a loophole in comparative religion:

At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths.

So, now we understand the real reason Harris is opposed to an Islamic community center more than, say, a new JCC. Islam simply is different from other faiths. Arguably, that’s tautological (every faith is different from other faiths). But Harris is not just saying it’s different: he’s saying it’s more dangerous.

This mentality is what I find most objectionable, and least conducive to any progress of the sort that Harris would like to see. Drawing attention to the contradictions between the commandments of ancient tribal religions and the day-to-day sensibilities of modern humans is one of the chief tactics that folks like Harris use to persuade people to cast of the shackles of religious thought. For this tactic to be worth employing, however, one must maintain a certain level of trust in the capacity of individuals to discount and eventually reject those tenets of their religion that conflict with their conscience. Humans are not robots that run any program fed to them. Harris must acknowledge this if he believes there can be a science of morality.

Religion can inspire actions both heroic and degenerate, and one can debate if one religion leans more in one direction or the other. But to paint all practitioners with the abstract theological generalizations is intellectually dishonest. As far as I know, none of Imam Rauf’s congregation has decapitated anyone yet. It stands to reason that most of them are capable of living and interacting among us, since they’ve been doing it for decades. They may have little interest in debating with Harris on the value of their faith, but they may be interested in finding a peaceful place in a liberal society that is open to them, and maybe we all can profit by it. That is, I believe, a formula for success that has served this country well in the past.


Harris continues:

The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.

This is an interesting tack from someone who has in the past challenged moderate Christians on their conveniently liberal interpretations of their religious texts. If the Deuteronomy says that the punishment for apostasy is death, who are liberal Christians to disobey (in fact, isn’t their disobedience itself a mortal sin)?

Indeed, he later writes:

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations.

This raises the question: if a liberal interpretation of Islam is too contradictory to imagine or trust- then exactly what “better” form of Islam would he find acceptable, and what are the “benign and practical ways” he would advocate of achieving it? I suspect the answer is to eradicate it, presumably by convincing the world’s Muslims that their religion is a sham. As daunting as such a strategy might seem, I submit it’s made all the more daunting by making it clear that even moderate adherents are not welcome in fully taking part in our society.

You shouldn’t build there, Muslims, because your faith is not like other faiths at this point in human history. Let’s talk about some ‘benign and practical ways of mitigating’ our differences, starting with your not making your community so visible, or expressing your beliefs so much. While you’re doing that, let me tell you about how your religion is most correctly represented by the sort of terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center. Hey, why the scowl?

Let’s assume for the moment that Harris can somehow resolve his own contradictions, and truly is advocating the advancement of a liberal (but still theist) interpretation of Islam that absolves its adherents of the various gruesome pronouncements made in their 7th century holy text. Interestingly, that seems to be exactly what the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, preaches. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out:

If this community center were being built anywhere else in the world, chances are the U.S. government would be funding it. The man behind it, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has spent years trying to offer a liberal interpretation of Islam. His most recent book, “What’s Right With Islam is What’s Right With America,” argues that America is actually what an ideal Islamic society would look like because it is peaceful, tolerant, and pluralistic. His vision for Islam, in other words, is Osama bin Laden’s nightmare – we should be encouraging such an Islamic center, not demonizing it.

Fareed Zakaria, GPS

If Harris really wants to see a liberal version of Islam, then why does he criticize a community center that all except the demagogues and the uninformed believe is a particularly liberal organization.

Harris has a convenient logical trap for this though:

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.

So, he is apparently admitting that it would be okay for some Muslims to build a mosque there. He didn’t bother discussing Feisal Abdul Rauf, his theology, or his existing congregation at Masjid al-Farah, a half mile north from the Park51 site. Presumably that’s because, other than the few spurious connections the right wing has tried to draw between Rauf and jihadism, or objections to his religion in general, there isn’t much negative that Harris has to say about him. So, if Feisal Abdul Rauf does not represent “the ones who should”, then does anyone? What this boils down to is a Catch-22: liberal Muslims should be free to build a mosque there, but building a mosque there proves you’re not a liberal Muslim. Q.E.D.

What’s so special about about the Park51 site, two blocks from Ground Zero (and one block from the New York Dolls stripclub)? Harris tries to find a formulation that differs from the emotional appeals from the likes of Sarah Palin and Rick Lazio. Unfortunately, he instead borrows the pseudo-intellectual appeal of Newt Gingrich:

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.

First of all, Harris completely abandons his earlier nuance and conflates Ground Zero with a former Burlington Coat Factory building two blocks away. That’s not the worst of it, though.

It isn’t so much what the community center actually does, or what its members believe, because whatever those minor details, it’s the symbolism of a mosque (that is, areas for prayer within a large community center) within two blocks of Ground Zero that looms largest in Harris’ fears.

This is to me the most frightening part of the objection to Park51, and indeed, the objection to anything Muslim: the notion that we must engage in a war of symbolism with militant jihadis which trumps our principles and sensibilities. Neoconservatives believed we could install a flower of democracy in Iraq that would bear fruit throughout the region. They believed this because they viewed the world in symbols. The reality is that countries (and movements) required more than symbols. We couldn’t even discuss drawing down in Iraq because doing so would be seen as a symbolic defeat by our enemies.

No matter who the imam is, no matter what the particular interpretation of Islam, we shouldn’t have a cultural center (with mosque) built two blocks from Ground Zero (or, in Harris’ quasi-propagandist terms, rising from the ashes of a jihadi atrocity) because somewhere some militant Muslim might consider it a victory for their cause. It’s the old “if [something I don’t like happens], then the terrorist have won” canard, and it’s particularly depressing to read Sam Harris resort to it.

Personally, I think jihadis already have their symbolic victory: it’s called Ground Zero, for the past nine years, it’s consisted of an undeveloped field of rubble. It’s boggling how a cultural center two blocks away, catering to an existing Muslim community that lives and thrives in New York City, the heart of the Great Satan, could trump that.

Muslims died in 9/11 as well, and I suspect many of their community in NYC suffered more that day than the vast majority of Americans did. To this newfangled (or old-fangled, it’s hard to tell) neoconservatism, though, their presence in Manhattan is irrelevant, inconvenient particulars in a war of abstracts. It didn’t matter whether the government of Iraq was actually effective in protecting and serving the Iraqi people as long as it stood as a symbol of democracy in the Arab Middle East. Similarly, it apparently matters little whether or how Park51 will serve the local community, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, because to some it will be a symbol of the triumph of Islam. The problem is that the importance of these symbols exists mainly in the imagination of those warning us about them.

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