Thursday, September 9, 2010

Burning Books, Buildings, and Bridges

Over at Pileus, James Otteson writes an excellent post which begs the following:

Why is burning the Koran any more offensive than building a mosque near Ground Zero?...

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that both are indeed outrageously insensitive, and people of good faith should oppose them both. But is there a consistent principle among those who oppose the one but not the other? Or is it that some people’s sensibilities are more important than those of others?...

James is one of my favorite contributors at Pileus, although my take is often somewhat different than his (Check out his great book, Actual Ethics if you get the chance!). I offer my take on his question in the comments:

The juxtaposition is kind of interesting. And, of course, the outrage is just going to continue to ramp up over the next couple of days. However, I do think there are some obvious differences – even if they don’t warrant different responses ultimately.

My two cents:

I think there are essentially two distinguishable facets to the sensibility issue; intention and perception. So I tend to compare and contrast the two items from that perspective.


On the one hand, you have an Imam with a (largely) unquestionable track record in his moderate and reconciliatory views on Islam and Western culture. His intention, if we are to take him at his word (past and present) is to build a bridge between these communities…to tear down the walls.

On the other hand, you have a pastor who’s intentions seem largely hateful and inflammatory. I don’t think anyone is under the delusion that he is trying to build bridges or promote peace between the two groups.


Regarding the “mosque”, a large portion of the American people are obviously offended by an Islamic community center being built in the somewhat near vicinity of ground-zero. What I find interesting about this reaction is that it largely seems to be the result of a somewhat tautological progression in reasoning. The first part is the somewhat obvious realization that not all Muslims were responsible for 9-11, and as Roderick Long has lamented, “banning an Islamic cultural center because the 9/11 highjackers were Muslim would be no more salient than banning a YMCA because the highjackers were male.” So justification for a profound amount of sensitivity regarding an innocent Muslim building a place of worship on private property is ultimately the vilification of Muslims in entirety – which had been going on long before this provocation. The truth, I think, is that intention does play a large role here (particularly when it comes to the actions of a person who hasn’t even committed a crime). So opponents have had to continually question the motivations not just this particular Imam, but the whole religion itself. And we’ve certainly seen this argument in spades in the last couple of weeks.

Regarding the burning of the Qu’ran, there are obviously a large amount of people in the Muslim world who are very offended by this action. So how is the perception of those people any different than those of the “sensitive” Americans? Well, since no crime has actually been committed here, I would say the largest difference would be intent. Muslims don’t have to make up a long and drawn-out conspiracy theory to convince us of the uniform hatred all Christians or Americans harbor for Muslims to pin this man as having hateful intentions – he’s being perfectly blunt regarding his actions. If, say, the Imam greatly sympathized with the 9-11 attackers and wanted to build the center as a shrine to the hijackers, I would say THEN Americans would have every right to be just as offended as Muslims around the world now seem to be.

With that being said, I have no sympathy for those that wish to coerce innocent people on the simple grounds of having their feelings hurt – this goes for disgruntled Americans who may wish to start revoking property titles or angry Muslims who are threatening violence over burnt books. So while it may seem like some people like me are being hypocritical, note that I’m certainly not excusing any Muslims who do or wish to do harm upon other people over this. It should be criticized just as swiftly and heavily as the people who are pushing to have government force used to stop the “mosque” from being built in New York. But my larger point, to reiterate, is that when it comes the sensitivity I believe a large part of that kind of response really does require untoward intentions of the “offending” party – which is precisely why, in the “mosque” conversation, opponents have quickly and forcefully woven incredibly generalized statements regarding the intentions of all Muslims into their denunciation of Feisal Abdul Rauf and his project.

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