The offender and the offended

Cover of Standpoint magazine, Jan-Feb 2011 issueWarning to the US: Don't Play by Islamic Rules (from Standpoint magazine)

This article is Douglas Murray’s treatment of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque controversy, in which he smears Muslims by equating them with al-Qa’ida, praises Newt Gingrich as a “responsible” politician for doing pretty much the same thing, calls the building itself a “mega-mosque” and a “mega-centre”, and sneers at Muslim imams for failing to turn up to a debate with him in London. As we will see, there are quite good reasons not to bother debating with someone like this.

He begins:

What was your first reaction back in May when you heard of plans to build a mega-mosque near the site of the Twin Towers in New York? Did you assume it was a tasteless joke? Did your jaw drop? Or did you think: “What a good idea. No better place.”

My bet would be that most readers (including self-described liberal readers) had a touch more of the former reaction than the latter. Some people even said so at the time. A number of families of 9/11 victims spoke out against the building and for a few weeks the idea of a 13-storey mosque complex beside the World Trade Centre craters, due to cost £68 million yet with no known financial backer, seemed a dead duck.

This term “mega-mosque” has its origins in the Abbey Mills mosque project in London, which seems to have died a death for the time being but was proposed as a Muslim worship and education centre by the Tablighi Jama’at. As I’m sure anyone familiar with the New York skyline will know, 13 storeys is not “mega” by Manhattan standards. Furthermore, the building is not going to be “beside” the WTC crater but several streets away, and if building a mosque there is some sort of sacrilege, then surely much of what already goes on there (including strip clubs) should be stopped as well.

He also conveniently omits to mention that there was a Muslim prayer centre in one of the twin towers and, needless to say, that did not survive the tower’s collapse. There were Muslims among the direct victims of the 9/11 attacks, not just the backlash afterwards.

Murray then accuses the New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, of “the now decade-long tendency to believe that al-Qaeda meant whatever you want them to have meant when they destroyed the Twin Towers” by claiming that “Three thousand people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedom to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams and to live our own lives”. Well, this tendency has been much more the preserve of the right than the left; it has always been about their hating freedom or the equality of women, and never about American interference in the affairs of various Muslim countries and partisanship for Israel. Perhaps 9/11 was not about destroying American freedom, except that they might have intended to force Muslims living in the west to choose sides, but it wasn’t about what Murray and his friends like to think it was about, either.

Newt Gingrich, he claims, was “not as distrustful as Bloomberg was of popular sentiment”, saying on air in August, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington…We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbour”, which opened the way for other mainstream politicians to oppose the mosque project. However, the Muslims seeking to build the mosque in Lower Manhattan are not “Nazis”, nor are they the same people who carried out the 9/11 attacks, so the comparison is completely inappropriate. There are around a billion Muslims in the world and al-Qa’ida are a tiny (and dwindling) fringe group. The mosque is not the equivalent of a “Nazi sign” near the Holocaust museum but of a Lutheran church. I doubt anyone would object to that. Similarly, a Buddhist temple near Pearl Harbour would hardly raise many eyebrows. Japanese are, after all, not the only Buddhists.

He goes on to claim that America is “not as blackmailed by history” as Europe is, as the mass of opposition to such a project in Europe would be dominated by skinheads and anyone seeking respectability would avoid it. The problem is that no atrocity involving Muslims has happened in Europe on anything like the same scale as 9/11, so we do not know how Europeans would react. We could compare it to a Catholic church being proposed near the site of an IRA attack, but any IRA attack on the British mainland almost certainly happens in a place with a large Catholic population and near to at least one Catholic church. There were Muslims in New York well before 9/11, and if ordinary white American Muslims cannot grasp the difference between local Muslims and a group of extremists who came from outsiders to attack everyone, it shows that they are ignorant and bigoted, and protecting people from the tyranny of an ignorant and bigoted majority is what we have laws and constitutions for.

In his account of a televised debate involving Faisal Abdur-Rauf (the intending imam of the new mosque), his wife Daisy Khan, and various figures on both sides (Robert Spencer appearing on the anti side), he uses a selective quote to make it seem like Daisy Khan said that people were “throwing her into the arms of al-Qa’ida”. When I googled this phrase, I found this CBS report in which she was reported as actually saying this:

Khan said that moderate Muslims like her must lead the fight against extremists in their religion.

“This is what we Muslims want to do, but you have tied our hands,” Khan said. “You don’t allow us to do this because you brand somebody like me as an extremist and throw me into the arms of al Qaeda.”

So, she was talking about moderate Muslims in general; they were being expected to take sides, either with their bigoted opponents or with al-Qa’ida. It was a rather hyperbolic way of saying it, but that seems to be what she meant. Ayaan Hirsi Ali appeared by video-link, accusing Daisy Khan of posing as a victim, to which Khan responded “I am not a victim, Ayaan, stop calling me that. You’re the one running around with a bodyguard”. Still, what was Ayaan Hirsi Ali doing on there anyway? She made a name for herself making outrageous and false claims about Islam while selling a distorted version of her own, and her family’s, histories. There is no reason to have her on there other than to add sensation and heat to the debate rather than anything constructive. Still, the threat that Hirsi Ali is under is not from American Muslims, least of all anyone involved in the Park51 mosque project, but from the fanatics in the Netherlands.

He then goes on about how America has fallen into a “European mistake” of thinking that the solution to “bad Islam” (in which planes are flown into buildings” is to promote a “good Islam” in its place. However, since Park51 is not seeking government funding, only permission to put up a building, this argument is totally misplaced. Promoting hand-picked “moderates” such as Maajid Nawaz in the UK is counter-productive, since they are generally mistrusted by the community at large; indeed, even when someone only appears to be supported by those with an anti-Muslim agenda, they are likely to be seen (rightly or wrongly) as tainted, as in the USA where “Rand Institute Muslim” has come to be used as a slur. Whether the government is “promoting” this project as a counterweight to al-Qa’ida is irrelevant because al-Qa’ida have no base in New York (the nearest thing to it is a small group of loud-mouths in Brooklyn); it is to be used by ordinary local Muslims, both local residents and commuters, who should not have to answer for the misdeed of a group of outsiders who came from Germany to cause mayhem nearly ten years ago.

Murray then gives us an account of a debate he had at New York University on the motion “Islam is a religion of peace” with Ayaan Hirsi Ali on his side and Zeba Khan and Maajid Nawaz, both of whom he describes as “exemplars of the moderate Muslim government game”. He wonders why neither Faisal Abdur-Rauf nor any other “cleric” or imam showed up to the debate. One possible reason is that they said “Douglas who?”, but perhaps they had no wish to get into a debate that would almost certainly not be conducted entirely honestly and might well be peppered with cheap shots. People like Murray (and others of his stripe, like Daniel Pipes) can only be rebutted by going through their writings with a fine-tooth comb and refuting them and exposing the distortions; it can’t be done as quickly as in a face-to-face debate, but it has to be done. A debate can be lost because a lie can be tossed in which is unfamiliar to those on the other side. Any honest person debating a dishonest or bigoted person is at a disadvantage and there is not much point entering into it.

Among his conclusions are that “there are rights which people have which are nevertheless not pursued because they will cause grievous offence and upset to others”, so even though it may be a legal right to build a “vast Islamic complex alongside Ground Zero”, it should not be done because of the hurt and offence it would cause, much as he would not burn a copy of the Qur’an outside a mosque for the same reason. If the mosque was to be built on a plot opposite Ground Zero itself, if there had been no Muslims killed in the attacks (other than the perpetrators) and no Muslim property destroyed, if the attacks had been the work of local Muslims rather than those who came for the purpose, then this argument might have some validity, but none of these conditions are fulfilled, so the American public (the section of it that is normally more than willing to dismiss New Yorkers as stuck-up liberals and not quite Americans anyway) will have to swallow it, and it is the job of the state to uphold the rule of law regardless of any manufactured outrage. It is not a case of confusing the “offender” (Muslims) with the “offended” (Americans); the only people offended here are the Muslims being expected to shoulder the guilt for an atrocity they had nothing to do with.

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