Dissent Of The Day

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

You write:

It's amazing to watch staunch secularists and the far right read from the same playbook. Islam is not a nation. And Harris dismisses religious moderates far too quickly, with too broad a brush ...  Harris implies that the people building Park 51 are the wrong sort of Muslims without bothering to prove that charge.

Well, its only partly true that Harris holds a similar position as the far right. Unlike the far right, he doesn't actually want the government to step in and stop the construction Cordoba House. He does, however, see Islam as a civilizational challenger. As Harris says in the piece:

Nor can we ignore the fact that many who oppose the construction of this mosque embody all that is terrifyingly askew in conservative America“birthers,” those sincerely awaiting the Rapture, opportunistic Republican politicians, and utter lunatics who yearn to see Sarah Palin become the next president of the United States (note that Palin herself probably falls into several of these categories). These people are wrong about almost everything under the sun. The problem, however, is that they are not quite wrong about Islam. [emphasis added]

I believe that Harris' main point is that, even though we should treat all Muslims as individuals, the Muslim world, by and large, does not see Muslims that way. Even here in the United States, 47% of American Muslims identify as Muslim first (according to , Pew Research Center's 2007 paper Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream [pdf]) and American second; Muslim-Americans. While this may seem like a trivial statistic, bear in mind that these numbers are much higher in Europe and the Middle East. What's more, like Christendom of old, Islam holds forth a territorial view of the world, dividing the earth into the House of Islam and the House of War.

All this should give us pause when we read statements like "Islam is not a nation." OK, so it's not a nation. But it's not exactly a matter of private belief, either. The way Islam poses itself today is not as a set of private spiritual and ethical beliefs (even if many Muslims practice it that way). Islam contains within it a set of explicitly political ideas that are the core organizing principal of several large countries and states. Countries with enormous amounts of oil wealth, political and cultural influence, and in the case of Pakistan, thermonuclear weaponry. Islam has a lot to say about how a state should be run, who should be in charge, what the moral and social order of a society should look like. The Old Testament has some of these things, but Judaism and Christianity have mostly come to ignore these ideas. How many Christians think that its a good thing to kill in defense of Christendom? Does the Hutaree militia control any states, or pose as a major political party in any Christian countries? Sam Harris, along with many, many Muslims, sees Islam as a global and globalizing political ideology. And he is right.

Sorry to burst this reader's "Clash of Civilizations" bubble, but identifying as "Muslim first" doesn't mean a whole lot. Here's Pew again:

Primary identification with religious affiliation is not unique to Muslims. Religious identity is almost equally as high among American Christians, 42% of whom say they think of themselves first as Christian. About half (48%) of Christians in the U.S. identify first as Americans, while 7% volunteer that they identify both with their nationality and their religion.

It's true that Islam plays a different role in world politics than Christianity, and Harris and Coyne – to their credit – do concede that Park 51 has every legal right to build a community center. But compare this line from Newt Gringrich:

Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington

To this line from Coyne:

It’s no better an idea than would be building an American cultural center near Ground Zero in Hiroshima.

Or these lines from Harris:

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.

All three of these statements make Islam – a faith with over a billion adherents – into a monolith. See Reihan for more in this vein. America has among the most moderate Muslim population of any nation. Grouping them with the likes of al Qaeda is disgusting. P.Z. Myers quotes this post by Jeffrey Rowland to illustrate how Muslims are being singled out:

There's been a lot of pointless bickering lately about a Mosque being built near where Nine Eleven happened. Exactly what is a "safe distance" to put a Mosque away from a place so that it doesn't have some imaginary effect on it? I'd prefer a ban on ALL religious buildings being built within 1,000 miles of a place where ANY MEMBER of ANY SPECIFIC religious organization did some harm unto society.

This is needlessly inflammatory, and I by no means endorse Rowland's proposed ban, but this passage drives the double-standard home.