News and Notes

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

Two stories of religious strife between Christians and Muslims in America played out in September.  First came manufactured Christian outrage over the approval by New York City planners of a Muslim culture center down a side street two blocks from Ground Zero.  Presidential hopefuls Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich demanded that the “Ground Zero Mosque” be stopped, as it was an insult to the people who died on September 11, 2001, and a triumphal celebration of Muslim conquest.  When President Obama pointed out that New York City Muslims have a right to build a mosque on property they own, opponents of the project were dismissive.  “Of course they have the right to build the mosque,” lectured Jay Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice.  “That’s not the point.”

But if the right of Muslims under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is, indeed, not the issue, why was Sekulow imploring listeners to his radio program to sign a petition asking the New York City Landmark Commission to prohibit the demolition of the building currently at the site?  Sekulow made no attempt to justify this ruse.  The petitioners had no interest in the historic importance or architectural artistry of the site.  Their only concern is to stop the construction of the so-called mosque, which is nothing more than a large room in the planned 5-story building.

The whole campaign is about turning the mosque into a political issue, enlisting politicians to the cause of using the tools of government to deny Muslims their free exercise rights.  If, as Sekulow claims, denying constitutional rights to Muslims is “not the point,” he should be urging politicians not to get involved.

Sekulow tells his listeners that those who express support for the right of Muslims to build the mosque are contradicting their professed support for freedom of religion, for women’s rights and the rights of individuals, because under Islamic rule these would be eliminated.  This is of course nonsense.  Support for any group to exercise the right to freedom of religious exercise guaranteed by the First Amendment in no way implies support for their right to control government, in violation of the Establishment Clause of that same First Amendment.

Meanwhile, in Gainesville, Florida, under heavy criticism from government officials, Pastor Terry Jones cancelled plans to burn copies of the Qur’an in a bonfire on September 11.  General David Petraus, Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, warned that it would inflame Muslim hatred and result in the death of American soldiers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama denounced the plan as an insult not only to Islam, but to America’s treasured religious tolerance, and a thoroughly dumb idea. Even government officials are entitled to their opinion, and those comments served to distance the US government from Pastor Jones’ contempt for Islam.  Disturbingly, however, local officials threatened to stop him for violating a regulation listing the materials that could be used to build a bonfire. Books are not on the list. They threatened to use a regulation enacted to reduce fire danger to suppress blasphemy.

It goes without saying that Pastor Jones’ planned bonfire was provocative and stupid. Burning the Qur’an, however, is constitutionally protected political expression and religious exercise. No matter how inflammatory or offensive people may regard burning someone’s holy books, government may do nothing to prevent it.

Pastor Jones heads the Dove World Outreach Center, which has fewer than 50 members. The whole incident has been derided by many commentators as a grievous case of media overreaction, creating international outrage over an event so insignificant that it deserved no notice. Others buy into General Petraeus’ consequential argument, and quote the nostrum that “rights demand responsibility.”  They assert that Pastor Jones should have been stopped because it could be expected that people would die in the Muslim backlash. But I believe that both of these arguments are weak. Even though Pastor Jones cancelled the book burning in a farcical confusion over whether there was an agreement to move the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” riots broke out in Punjab and Kashmir, resulting in at least 15 deaths.  The riots were sparked by twitter rumors that a burned Qur’an was found at a mosque in Michigan.

The lesson is that we cannot abridge rights in the United States because we fear offending Muslims abroad. There are those who want to foment Muslim anger against the U.S., and they have shown that they can do so even over fictitious events. And while government suppression would undermine our commitment to human rights, self-censorship is equally corrosive to our free marketplace of ideas.

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