Is a mosque near Ground Zero "insensitive"?

How you look at things.
Aug. 23 2010 8:11 AM

Sensitive Conservatism

Is a mosque near Ground Zero "insensitive"?

Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani 

One by one, the arguments against the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero have collapsed. A "13-story mosque"? No such plan. "At Ground Zero"? Wrong again. The imam's radical politics? A myth. His shadowy jihadist financiers? Imagined. His failure to denounce terrorism? Debunked. The "angry battle" he's "stoking"? Please. The guy isn't even returning phone calls. The anger and stoking have come from the other side.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

So the mosque's opponents have fallen back on one last argument: sensitivity.

"This is an insensitive move," says Sarah Palin. "The question here is a question of sensitivity, people's feelings," says Rudy Giuliani. It's "not just insensitive but provocative," argues Charles Krauthammer. "Those who want to block the mosque are demanding a truly meaningful gesture in 'special sensitivity,' " writes Rich Lowry. Bill Kristol says the proposed location fails to show proper "respect" to the dead.  Jonah Goldberg invokes "appropriateness." Karen Hughes, the former Bush aide, says the mosque should be moved because most Americans "don't believe it's respectful, given what happened there."

Feelings about 9/11 are raw and real. Many people, including families who lost loved ones that day, find the prospect of a mosque near Ground Zero upsetting. I've heard this reaction in my family, too. But feelings aren't reasons. You can't tell somebody not to build a house of worship somewhere just because the idea upsets you. You have to figure out why you're upset. What's the basis of your discomfort? Why should others respect it? For that matter, why should you?

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This kind of reflection is missing from the sensitivity chorus. Palin says the uproar over the mosque reflects "the wisdom of the people," but she doesn't explain how. Giuliani pleads that some 9/11 families "are crying over this," but he doesn't explore the perceptions behind their tears. Hughes, Lowry, and Goldberg appeal to "courtesy," "decency," and "good taste,"  but they don't say how these principles apply. Krauthammer points out that Pope John Paul II, "one of the towering moral figures of the 20th century," once moved a convent away from Auschwitz. But that doesn't explain why the convent or the mosque should have been moved.

Kristol seems particularly incensed. He accuses President Obama of treating mosque opponents' objections as "overreactions" and "hysteria" so that their "arguments don't have to be taken seriously." OK, but what's Kristol's argument against the mosque? "Serious people have thought a lot about this," he says. And their conclusion is? "There shouldn't be a 13-story mosque and Islamic community center next to Ground Zero." And why not? Kristol never explains. Like his colleagues, he simply embraces the no-mosque position as a "sensible and healthy reaction."

With the exception of Palin, these are not stupid people. They're searching our sensitivity for an underlying rationale that justifies the exclusion of mosques from the vicinity of Ground Zero. And they aren't finding one.

What they're finding instead is group blame. The destruction of the World Trade Center "was an attack in the name of Islam," says Giuliani. "It was a perverted type of Islam, but a kind of prevalent view that goes on in a lot of parts of the world. So we've got to be sensitive to everybody here." Lowry draws a similar connection: "It is true that Islam as such is not responsible for 9/11, but symbolism and the sensibilities of New Yorkers and victims of 9/11 can't be discounted." Krauthammer adds:

Ground Zero is the site of the most lethal attack of that worldwide movement, which consists entirely of Muslims, acts in the name of Islam and is deeply embedded within the Islamic world. These are regrettable facts, but facts they are. And that is why putting up a monument to Islam in this place is not just insensitive but provocative.

This is the true thinking behind the anti-mosque sensitivity: Muslims committed the massacre. Therefore, no Muslim house of worship  should be built there.

It's natural to be angry at Muslims for 9/11. In fact, it's natural to want to kill them. We've hated and killed each other for centuries. You kill us; we kill you. The "you" is collective. You aren't exactly the infidel who slew my grandfather. But you're close enough.

Seen against this backdrop, the mosque fight represents enormous progress. We aren't talking about killing Muslims or banning their religion. We're just asking them not to build a mosque near the place where they murdered thousands of our people. "Putting the mosque at a different site would demonstrate the uncommon courtesy sometimes required for us to get along," Hughes suggests. In turn, "this gesture of goodwill could lead us to a more thoughtful conversation to address some of the ugliness this controversy has engendered."

But if our revulsion at the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero is irrational—if it's based on group blame and a failure to distinguish Islam from terrorism—then maybe it isn't the mosque's planners who need to rise above their emotions. Maybe it's the rest of us.

Once we recognize the sensitivity argument for what it is—an appeal to feelings we can't morally justify—there's no good reason why the Islamic center shouldn't be built at its planned site, in the neighborhood where its imam already preaches and its members work and congregate. Asking them to reorder their lives to accommodate our instinctive reaction is wrong. We can transcend that reaction, and we should.

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    By all means, let's have a thoughtful conversation about Islam and its place in the United States. Let's ask the imam what he means when he says sharia is compatible with the U.S. Constitution. Let's confront the reluctance of Muslim clerics, including this one, to denounce Hamas. And let's demand transparency in the fundraising process so extremists don't finance the new building. Moving the building farther away from Ground Zero won't advance any of these discussions. It's the wrong fight. Let it go. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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