What I don’t defend about the Park51 Mosque

This past week, I twice wrote about the Cordoba/Park 51 mosque/community center at the Huffington post, both times hammering home the point that Rauf and his organization have a clear right to build two blocks away from Ground Zero. However, some people seem to have taken my support for property rights and my opposition to fear-mongering as evidence for an affinity for Islam, so I thought I would clarify.

Jen, author of BlagHag, was visiting NYC this past week, and she made a point of stopping by the future site of Park51. When she was there, there was a small demonstration by supporters of the project, and she fell into conversation with someone involved with Park51.

The guy with the goatee let us know that friends were welcome to dinner at 8pm, regardless if they were Muslim or not. Though he did say women would eat in a separate room, and after a quick glance at my outfit, confirmed that I was modestly dressed enough to come. We already had plans, but it was a nice offer.

Jen’s anecdote made me wince because, to put it bluntly, I don’t like Islam. As an atheist, I obviously dislike it for preaching what I believe to be falsehoods and encouraging people to waste a significant portion of their life in empty ritual and meaningless taboos. Of course, the previous goes for most religions, except those which are too watered down to say much of anything at all.

What really bothers me about Islam (as well as Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and some evangelical traditions) is the way it treats women. Wishing women would dress modestly is different from treating their uncovered arms or hair as an assault upon the righteous. Offering specific workshops or meeting for groups according to gender or race or age or any other characteristic is different from mandating separation, particularly when that separation serves primarily to isolate women.

I don’t find much comfort in hoping ‘moderate’ strains of Islam win out. Most of the time, when we talk about the ‘moderate’ form of any religion, we mean the one that looks pretty secular, but incorporates some quaint cultural practices. I’m perfectly happy to just campaign for atheism. After all, I don’t object to sexist practices because I find them to be inconsistent with the teachings of Muhammad. For me, the question is irrelevant, since I don’t believe the Koran to be an infallible guide to ethics to begin with.

This is what makes free speech work difficult, and I confess I have a much easier time writing about these issues than I would if I were working for the organizers of Park51. I imagine I’d have a very difficult time if I were ever a free speech lawyer for an organization of Hasidim and were not permitted to shake the hands of my clients.

I do like the way that fellow card-carrying member of the ACLU Andrew Shepherd sums up the problem in the film The American President:

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.

I’m still not sure to what extent I should suppress my moral outrage when working on civil liberties and due process problems. Have other people encountered similar problems? How did you handle them?

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