I figure it’s time for me to finally put down in a sort of structured way what I think about this “ground zero mosque” controversy, beginning with the admission that I know it isn’t “only” a mosque, but a mosque is a part of what will hereafter be referred to as that “construction project.”
Next, I might simply wrap it up by saying I think that Charles Krauthammer, a man with whom I typically find little to agree with, is absolutely right in his assessment of the entire situation, while Ron Paul, a man with whom I typically find much to agree with, is almost entirely wrong in his own assessment, which makes repeated appeals to property rights.
Let me give you Krauthammer’s thesis, which is also a reply to this sort of argument, and which has been my own since the first day I heard about this:
No one disputes the right to build; the whole debate is about the propriety, the decency of doing so.
In my own readings and heated debates, the refrain I hear from the defenders of this construction project is the same as Obama’s: they have a right. What this argument boils down to is this: “we are doing this because we can, because you have no legal standing to stop us, and all of your complaints are irrelevant.”
Does this sound like a firm basis for an enduring friendship between two religions, two cultures, two ways of life?
It is hard to see how friendship can exist or endure without respect. In this country, the majority of Americans, for various and complicated reasons, are not ready to see Islamic buildings go up that close to the site of a mass murder carried out by people who acted in the name of Islam. This does not mean, and never has meant, that the majority of these Americans are categorically hostile to Islam. This is not the “tyranny of the majority”, this is not concomitant with a demand to banish Islam from the Republic and prevent the construction of mosques anywhere in the country. This is about respect.
In a relationship based upon respect between equals, which we presumably all are in this scenario, the party whose actions have caused offense should cease and desist those actions immediately. The claims of the offended party should be heard and acknowledged. And if the offending party can meet whatever objective they were attempting to meet by a different course of action that does not violate the boundaries of the offended party, then they are obliged, if they would maintain a respectful relationship, to pursue that different course.
That is exactly what we are faced with here. The Muslims behind this construction project wish to “build bridges”, and many of their defenders in the media have stated that the goal here is to build friendship among Muslims and non-Muslims. If that is the stated goal, then this project is undeniably counter-productive. Moreover, this goal could easily be pursued in a thousand other ways.
What it comes down to is this: You can’t force someone to be your friend. The reliance upon force undermines the very essence of friendship. A friendship is something freely entered into. That is why Ron Paul’s appeal to “property rights” is most disappointing to me; he of all people should understand that a mere appeal to rights is nothing but an appeal to the coercive power of the state. I’m not arguing that this power shouldn’t exist all, and I certainly believe in and defend private property rights, but I would also argue that its purpose has never been, nor will its effect ever be, to create and maintain friendships.
In fact, rights and their enforcement follow from what classical political theorists called a state of nature, or a state of war. People consent to leave this state and form governments to secure rights that are constantly under assault from other men in the natural state. And quite naturally, those who are attempting to take your property, liberty, or your life aren’t your friends. When the state is erected as arbiter, it doesn’t erase the underlying causes of conflict, but suppresses them with the threat of force.
What does address and mitigate the underlying causes of conflict are culture and especially religion. Radically different cultures and religions need time – sometimes a whole lot of time – to encounter and understand each other. If they are to actually become friends, and something more than just people who “tolerate” one another in the way one tolerates the smell of manure while living in a farming community, an organic process that will take place over a few generations must be allowed to unfold. And it may not happen at all, in the end, especially if it is interrupted by ill-conceived provocations.
Yes, the Muslims behind this project have every right in the world to build wherever they want. But if it’s friends they want, and not just another building, they and their moralizing, condescending apologists had better come up with better arguments than that. William McGurn, writing for the Wall Street Journal, made this argument as well:
[N]ot all big questions can—or should—be reduced to legal right. Living together as neighbors in a free and inescapably diverse society requires more skills than just knowing how to hire sharp lawyers.
His comparison of this situation to the Catholic nuns who wished to pray at Auschwitz, only to have their project canceled by John Paul II, is well worth everyone’s read.