Our rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness
can only be secured by a state strictly separated from religion

25 June 2010

NYC Mosque: Respect Property Rights

By Diana Hsieh

[Originally written for NoodleFood.]

On Facebook, I've been involved in some heated debates on the proposed building of a mosque near the World Trade Center lately. They were spawned by Ed Cline's note in support of conservative Pamela Geller's since-resolved dispute with PayPal. (For the record, I find Geller's use of Playboy'ed Atlas Shrugged images for her conservative politics offensive in more ways than I can count.)

Here's the problem: Geller wants to use the power of the state to prevent the mosque from being built, even though it's private property. That's wrong.

For people to protest the building of the mosque at that site would be entirely proper. (They could write letters to the editor or picket the site, for example.) For the government to investigate the builders of the mosque for any ties to terrorism is likely warranted. (Mere foreign funding is not evidence of terrorist ties though.) However, to forcibly block the construction of the mosque by using unjust laws that violate private property rights is morally wrong, not to mention politically dangerous.

People should not be judged guilty by the law and stripped of their rights just because they accept or advocate certain ideas. A person has the right to hold whatever beliefs he pleases -- however wrong -- provided that he does not attempt to force them on others. He has the right to practice the religion of his choosing, so long as he does so without violating the rights of others.

Even in times of war, a government cannot justly treat all immigrants from the enemy's country or all adherents of the enemy's religion as enemies. To strip a person of his rights to life, liberty, or property without some concrete evidence of his sympathy for or assistance to the enemy is to punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty. It's pure collectivism.

Yet people on that Facebook thread -- including some Objectivists -- claim that we're at war with the religion of Islam per se, that all Muslims are terrorists due to the Koranic command to wage war against the infidel, that to respect the property rights of Muslims would be suicidal, that Muslims should be barred from entering the country, that all Muslims should be treated as suspected terrorists, etc. That shocked me. It's not a view that's consistent with individual rights, nor with Objectivism.

So a few days ago, I briefly stepped into that thread to lend my support to an Objectivist philosopher under attack for arguing that law-abiding Muslims have a right to build what they please on their own property.

Here's what I wrote:

Private property must be respected, even when we find the views and actions of its owners odious, provided that they're not acting to violate rights. Totalitarian Islam is a major threat, but that threat needs to be fought by the military -- by destroying the states that sponsor terrorism -- not by violating private property rights in order to prevent a mosque from being built.

It's standard conservative strategy to use the rights-violating machinery of the state to achieve some (supposedly) noble purpose, rather than working for the kind of fundamental change necessary to eliminate the problem at its root. That fundamental change isn't "practical" or "realistic," conservatives say. It's "pie in the sky" fantasy.

Hence, for example, conservatives advocate "right to work" laws, rather than advocating for repeal of the unjust legislation (like the Wagner Act) that gives unions so much power. Fundamentally, that's because conservatives don't care about liberty, despite their occasional pro-rights rhetoric. They're just in a political struggle with the left: they want power, nothing more.

Ayn Rand, in contrast, always took a principled approach. That's why she opposed "right to work" laws -- and that's why she upheld the rights of communists to speak, provided that they weren't attempting to overthrow the US government. In her "Screen Guide for Americans," Ayn Rand wrote:

"Now a word of warning about the question of free speech. The principle of free speech requires that we do not use police force to forbid the Communists the expression of their ideas--which means that we do not pass laws forbidding them to speak. But the principle of free speech does not require that we furnish the Communists with the means to preach their ideas, and does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense. The Constitutional guarantee of free speech reads: "Congress shall pass no law..." It does not require employers to be suckers.

"Let the Communists preach what they wish (so long as it remains mere talking) at the expense of those and in the employ of those who share their ideas. Let them create their own motion picture studios, if they can. But let us put an end to their use of our pictures, our studios and our money for the purpose of preaching our exploitation, enslavement and destruction. Freedom of speech does not imply that it is our duty to provide a knife for the murderer who wants to cut our throat."

Based on that, do you really think that Ayn Rand would have advocated violating the private property rights of Muslims? If so, then you're thinking like a conservative, not an Objectivist. You're being pragmatic, not principled. As the trajectory of modern conservatism into more and more statism has shown, that's a losing strategy.
I was hoping that the Objectivists on that thread might see fit to check their premises. I was disappointed, so I decided not to post further. However, I'd like to add a few more comments here.

If, without any known terrorist or criminal connections, the government need not respect the property rights of the Muslims seeking to build this mosque, then why respect the property rights of any Muslims? Can the government prevent the building of mosques elsewhere? Can it destroy existing mosques? Can it seize the home of Muslims? Can it shut down Islamic web sites, even if unconcerned with the infidel? Can it ban Muslims from advocating their religion? Can it imprison Muslim leaders? Can it intern Muslims in camps? Can it execute people for refusing to renounce Islam?

These are serious questions. If the rights of Muslim citizens need not be respected, then logic demands that a person answer "Yes" to all those questions. That person must endorse totalitarian control over Muslims -- solely for their ideas -- even when lacking any evidence of criminal activity or intentions. He must endorse the idea of thoughtcrime, i.e. punishment by the state for unwelcome ideas. The slope here is very, very slippery.

As Paul argued in his recent op-ed on free speech:
Free speech is essential to human life. Man's primary means of survival is his mind. In order to live, we must be free to reason and think. Hence we must be left free to acquire and transmit knowledge, which means we must be free to express our ideas, right or wrong.
That's what's at stake here.

Personally, I regard the principles underlying the call to ignore the property rights of these Muslims as a major threat to my liberty. Suppose that Muslims are stripped of their rights and shipped off to the gulag. Do you imagine that our government -- statist behemoth that it is -- wouldn't use those same powers to silence other critics? How long before Paul and I would be declared enemies of the state, stripped of our property, and sentenced to years of "re-education" or "labor"? Do you think that Leonard Peikoff, Yaron Brook, and Craig Biddle wouldn't be silenced, if not worse? Do you think that you'd be safe?

I'm not keen on the gulag. (Amazing, but true!) So if you're supporting political action that will get me there sooner, then we're not political allies. In fact, you're nothing but a wolf in sheep's clothing to me. You might be smart, pleasant, and conscientious; you might not wish me any harm; you might wish to promote liberty. Nonetheless, you're a danger to me and mine. I can't ignore that, and I hope that this post will give you pause.

I'm appalled that our government is not waging anything remotely like a proper war against the states that sponsor terrorism. Yet that problem cannot be solved by violating the rights of random Muslims in America. If our government is permitted to strip people of their rights based solely on ideology, the Muslim fanatics will be the least of our worries.

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