The Privilege of Prejudice
Should we respect the anti-Muslim feelings of some 9/11 families?
Another talk-show host, Steve Malzberg, protested, "We have a president who is more concerned about appeasing radical Islam than doing what's right and protecting the freedoms of every American citizen. He says, 'Build the mosque, but to burn the Quran would be insensitive. It's a stunt.' Whose side is he on?" The crowd applauded loudly. (Malzberg's comments matched the views of Geller, who on Thursday called Obama's opposition to the Quran burning "another striking blow to American non-Muslims and freedom of speech.")
John Bolton, who was President Bush's ambassador to the United Nations and is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a potential Republican presidential candidate, addressed the rally by video link. He called the proposed community center the "Ground Zero mosque" (though it isn't a mosque and isn't at Ground Zero) and claimed that the imam "has refused to call Hamas a terrorist organization"—ignoring the imam's statement last week that "I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism." (On Meet the Press, Giuliani repeated this falsehood, claiming that the imam "can't condemn Hamas as a terrorist group.") Bolton derided the project's planners for implicitly telling the rest of America, "We're going to increase religious tolerance and understanding whether you like it or not."
This view—that any minority eliciting widespread opposition must retreat or be deemed incendiary—was echoed by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, another featured speaker. Breitbart, whose past lies have been exposed on video, pointed out that "Americans have every right to congregate at Ground Zero, at the World Trade Center, to represent the majority point of view." He told the crowd: "Those people who represent the minority are acting as if you're somehow doing something that is morally incorrect."
The event's keynote speaker, Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, repeated the canard about the imam: "He refuses to condemn terrorists." But regardless of the imam's politics, Wilders vowed, "We cannot tolerate a mosque on or near Ground Zero."
Author and Pace University professor Richard Connerney, whose scheduled speech was bumped because the rally went beyond its allotted time, released his remarks through an anti-mosque Web site. He concluded that "when individual citizens are incapable of this level of sensitivity and they cause widespread offense, as Imam Rauf and [project financier] Sharif El Gamal have done, then a just government must act."
Together, these speeches conveyed an overlapping array of beliefs: Because the 9/11 killers were Muslims, Americans shouldn't tolerate a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero. There's no moral difference between building a mosque there and burning a Quran. A president who opposes the Quran burning but not the mosque is on the wrong side. It's foolish to try to understand the Muslim world except as a pathology. On religious questions, the majority should be respected. Any minority that does anything we don't like is being intolerant, and if its behavior causes offense, as in this case, the government should step in.
Next time you hear a politician denounce the proposed Islamic community center as an affront to 9/11 families, remember what some of these families and their political allies (unlike other 9/11 families) said, applauded, and booed at this rally. People are entitled to their feelings, particularly when they've suffered. But using such feelings to justify special legal or social restrictions on an entire ethnic or religious group is another matter. Nothing, not even losing a loved one, entitles you to that. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Debra Burlingame by Roland Magunia/AFP/Getty Images.