Qur’an Burnings and Manhattan Mosques

I haven’t commented until now on this “Ground Zero mosque” – a ridiculous misnomer invented to inflame prejudice, since it’s not at Ground Zero and it isn’t a mosque – because, honestly, I don’t think there’s much that needs to be said. America still has the First Amendment, it still has freedom of religion, and Muslims have the same rights as anyone to build their religious centers anywhere they want. Unless they’re directly advocating or planning violence, there’s nothing that the government or anyone else can do to stop them, and that’s as it should be.

The idea apparently motivating the resistance to Park51 is that Muslims bear some sort of collective responsibility for 9/11, which is absurd. Muslim Americans died on that day, along with the other victims, and al-Qaeda itself spends a great deal of time and effort killing other Muslims. There are violent undercurrents in Islam, ones which command the allegiance of a disturbingly large number of people, that must be fought – but that’s no basis for a blanket denial of all Muslim building projects, in Manhattan or anywhere else. (I would add that the compromise solution preferred by many politicians, namely to move the Park51 center a few blocks away, makes absolutely no sense. Why is a Muslim community center four blocks away more respectful than one that’s two blocks away? Is there an invisible line somewhere?)

On the subject of pseudocontroversies, I’m sure you’ve also heard about this Florida pastor who plans to burn copies of the Qur’an. He’s repeatedly changed his mind about whether to do it, and as of now the burning is off, but there are some things that should be said regardless.

First of all, the same comments as above apply: America has freedom of religion, which includes the freedom not to believe and even the freedom to treat other people’s holy symbols disrespectfully. This includes the freedom to treat wafers in ways Catholics dislike, to draw Mohammed even if others think we shouldn’t, and so on. Having freedom of religion means that religious beliefs are not encoded in state law. It’s ridiculous that so many Muslims have worked themselves into a frenzy about this. Did they not realize that Christians reject many of their beliefs?

That said, this doesn’t mean I’m fully behind this pastor’s deed. For one thing, many of his former parishioners describe him as a vicious, deceitful cult leader. But more importantly, the act of burning a book has historically been intended to convey the message: “Your ideas should be destroyed so that no one has a chance to read them.” I’m opposed to Islam as I am to every other religion, but I’m absolutely not in favor of destroying the Qur’an or any other book. Even when an idea is bad, I think it should be preserved so people can study it and recognize the fallacy, not eradicated so they can’t make up their own minds.

Even in the infamous wafer incident, PZ wasn’t doing it just to make Catholics mad. It was a protest against bullying, tyrannical religious groups who try to make everyone, including nonmembers, live by their rules – and he said so very clearly. Similar with the Mohammed cartoons: they weren’t a pointless provocation of Muslims, but a specifically pointed commentary on press freedom and intimidation – a protest aimed at religious theocrats who think their private beliefs should be binding on everyone. I see no such free-speech message in the Qur’an burning.

Whether it’s Muslims or Christians rioting in the streets, the Twin Towers burning or the Taliban in Afghanistan, the lesson from all these stories is the divisive effect that religion has on humanity. It encourages us to group people into Us and Other, to battle and hate each other over ultimately inconsequential differences. If we all had the well-being of our fellow humans as our highest goal, rather than the worship of invisible entities and obedience to arbitrary rules, there would be that much less reason for people and nations to fight one another.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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