Monday, August 16, 2010

Protest Does Not Equal an Attack on Religious Freedom

Before I address the main point, I want to note a few things, since my last post on this subject attracted various comments and questions. When this controversy first erupted, I refrained from posting anything. It's not really a big issue for me if a Muslim group wants to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero. My first thought was: that's a really bad idea which will anger a lot of people. But, if they own the property they have a right to build it. I was not surprised that large numbers of people started to protest. A strong majority of Americans were going to object to the project for what I think are obvious reasons -- and those reasons (for most) do not include bigotry toward Muslims. What caught my attention was the almost immediate campaign, led by the left, to smear the majority of Americans as ignorant bigots for daring to object, even in mild terms, to an Islamic center near Ground Zero. I find this campaign particularly annoying because of the rank hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty of the loudest voices. In my opinion, there is no question that many of the same people screeching about religious freedom, pretending that there are no reasonable grounds for objection, and smearing those with differing opinions would be on the opposite side were this an issue involving a Christian or Jewish structure planned for a place where it was guaranteed to cause offense. That's why I feel compelled to address the mosque issue myself.

Returning to the main point... As many have rightly pointed out, the question of whether or not the Islamic center should be built is not a religious freedom issue. Saying that it is, over and over again, no matter how loudly, does not make it one. This has been one of the main false narratives from mosque supporters, that opponents are against the constitution and want to restrict religious liberty. Public protest is not an attack on religious freedom. It is instead an attempt to persuade, to change minds, to demonstrate the strength of public opinion in opposition and to convince those being protested to change their behavior or designs. It is an exercise of free speech. If a land developer of any kind wants to construct something on private property that others find offensive, protesting it is what we do here in America. The fact that this is a religious project in no way turns protests into an attack on religious liberty. Being religious does not and should not shield someone from criticism or protest.

The only time religious freedom becomes an issue is if government intervention is suggested to shut down the project by force. If this is the case, then the Islamic center development becomes not only a religious freedom issue, but a question of property rights. But most people protesting the project are not suggesting government action of that kind -- although a few are. There is a giant red line between protesting the construction and calling for government intervention. But supporters of the Islamic center have lumped both positions together, and labeled all opposition as bigotry, and an attack on constitutional rights. They are not only wrong, but in my opinion intellectually dishonest, as most are aware of the distinction between protest and government action.

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