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20 July 2010

Three Arguments for Blocking Cordoba House

By Ari

This article originally was published July 2 on Ari Armstrong's blog.

Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic center within the damage zone of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, richly deserves moral condemnation. Whether it should be forcibly blocked is another matter. Here my goal is to explain and engage the three most important arguments for blocking the construction of Cordoba House. I conclude that, while two arguments don't succeed, a third might.

1. "The organizers of Cordoba House promote bad ideas."

Advocates of blocking Cordoba House frequently cite the horrible views espoused by the center's lead organizer, Feisal Abdul Rauf (an Imam and United States citizen). As I have reviewed, Rauf has failed to condemn Hamas (though he has condemned terrorism in the abstract), partly blamed America for the 9/11 attacks, and openly advocated Islamic Sharia law in the U.S.

The problem with blocking Cordoba House because of the views advocated by its organizers (as I have reviewed in a first and second article) is that thousands of other American Muslims, leftist intellectuals and activists, and libertarians have expressed identical or substantively similar views. Thus, the same case should apply to all those other thousands of American citizens, who, logically, also should be forcibly stripped of their property or use of it to promote their ideas. Yet, to date, I have heard not a single advocate of shutting down the Islamic center claim that they want to also target all those other American citizens.

Here I am addressing the promotion of ideas, not criminal acts. I have seen no evidence that the organizers of Cordoba House (the property's legally recognized owners) have engaged in any criminal or terrorist activity. Anyone who commits violent acts, shelters or finances terrorists, or directly promotes terrorist acts has committed a crime, and, as Steve Simpson notes, existing criminal code already addresses such matters. In cases of such crimes, appropriate action extends far beyond merely blocking the criminal's use of property. Anyone guilty of such crimes should be prosecuted and imprisoned upon conviction, and at least all property related to their crimes should be confiscated. In such cases the central issue is the crime, not the use of property, which would be restricted only as a consequence of the criminal sanctions.

Amy Peikoff has pointed out that it is possible to argue that promoting Islam is itself a criminal act:

[T]here probably are good legal arguments that could be made to stop this, arguments that need not presuppose that our government has formally declared war. This approach is tricky, of course, because you can't say that someone doesn't have a right to property, simply because his views, which he plans to promote via use of his property, at root negate the principle of private property. Plenty of ideologies do that. So this gets back to the problem of recognizing the unique nature of Islam in this regard. To make the proper sort of legal argument I have in mind – something along the lines of a well-defined trade embargo, or perhaps a charge of conspiracy to commit a crime, or, as James Valliant has suggested, solicitation to murder – one has to recognize that the distinguishing characteristic of Islam as a religion is its doctrine of Jihad, which is, in effect, an incitement to violence, even though many individual Muslims aren't violent and never will be. If you don't believe this about Islam as such, then you will naturally reject this approach.
However, if this argument succeeds, then the logical conclusion is that all Muslims in the United States who advocate Islam should be branded criminals. Yet nobody who advocates the forced blocking of Cordoba House argues that all Muslims who advocate Islam should be targeted with criminal proceedings.

Indeed, the very implication reduces the position to absurdity.

The reason the position implies absurd applications is that the mere advocacy of an idea does not inherently or automatically lead to violent actions. Consider some comparisons.

Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff argue that Kant is inherently evil (because willfully dishonest), and that his views logically imply the total abnegation of individual rights. And yet nobody argues that advocates of Kantianism are criminals because of the ideas they advocate.

In her talk, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World," "Ayn Rand explains why mysticism is altruism's precondition, and why dictatorship is its product." She argues that faith as such logically implies the outright "destruction of the modern world." And yet nobody argues that all Christians are criminals because of the ideas they advocate.

Communism explicitly demands the sacrifice of the individual to the collective. And yet nobody argues that all Marxist university professors should be branded criminals because of the ideas they advocate.

Even if someone openly advocates an idea that logically entails violent actions, that person need not become violent (as Peikoff notes). Ideas motivate people to action, but not in any deterministic sort of way. Often people decline to enact (or they simply fail to comprehend) the logical consequences of their ideas.

What violates rights is force, an action. An idea cannot violate rights. While a bad idea can motivate one to criminal action, the mere advocacy of an idea is not itself criminal.

This applies even to ideas held by America's enemies. I agree with Leonard Peikoff when he states:
Treason... is giving aid and comfort to the enemy in wartime. And the enemy has to be defined in objective, physical terms, as a reality of physical attack, or the objective threat of physical attack. I better clarify what I mean by "aid and comfort." If you give material assistance, or weapons, that is aid and comfort. If you urge the [American] soldiers to desert, that is aid and comfort. If you propagandize, urging specific actions, riots and strikes, etcetera, at home, like the Beatniks did during Vietnam, that is aid and comfort. ... If you send food packages to the insurgents or the Iranis in the Iraq war, all that is aid and comfort. ... [Y]ou have to draw a line between physical, concrete aid and comfort, and a broad moral stand on an issue of national concern which you have every right to take. ... You are certainly entitled on intellectual grounds to denounce a war, and even to say the enemy is morally superior to us. You're entitled to say this. But what you're not entitled to do is then go out and specifically help that enemy win the war. That is the big difference. It's a crime to advocate a crime, to help perpetrate, to be an accomplice. It is not a crime to advocate a legal change in the policy that is leading to it. You get the difference between sending food to the insurgents and condemning the war in Iraq.
(As an aside, Peikoff also argues that "it has to be a declared war" for a charge of treason to stick. He says, "All wars which are not declared have no status." Absent a declaration of war, he states, "no rules of war or treason can apply... unless it's an emergency" preceding a formal declaration of war. However, my understanding is that charges of treason may be brought in spy cases even when the United States is not at war, so I think that in certain cases treason can apply outside a formal declaration of war.)

If the advocacy of certain ideologies is deemed inherently criminal, consider what such a legal precedent would mean for the rest of us, say, if fundamentalist Christians gained even more influence over government. Paul Hsieh has offered some good examples. Here's another: in his new book To Save America, Newt Gingrich argues that secularism is inherently socialistic and that it poses an "existential threat" to America (p. 6). If we're going to turn people into criminals for the ideas they advocate, secularists may be among the first in the gulags, however misguided the attack on them.

Absent concrete evidence linking Cordoba House's organizers to crime or terrorism, then, they cannot be prosecuted as criminals, and their center cannot properly be blocked on those grounds.

2. "Cordoba House would embolden America's enemies."

Advocates of forcibly blocking Cordoba House, however, can offer some other reason for doing so, besides the views advocated by its organizers. For example, they can argue that building an Islamic center within the damage zone of the 9/11 attacks inherently emboldens America's enemies, apart from the particular ideas the organizers advocate. I think that is the approach Leonard Peikoff is taking in his recent podcast on the matter.

By my understanding, Peikoff would advocate blocking Cordoba House, regardless of the particular views expressed by its organizers. Even if Rauf enthusiastically condemned Hamas, declared America's complete and utter innocence regarding the 9/11 attacks, and openly opposed Sharia law, I think Peikoff still would advocate blocking Cordoba House. By this view, the case for blocking Cordoba House does not depend on the particular views of those organizers (beyond their general endorsement of Islam); it depends solely on the location of the proposed center.

Advocates of blocking Cordoba House have made some extraordinary claims about its construction. Leonard Peikoff suggests that our "metaphysical survival is at stake." Amy Peikoff suggests that to allow Cordoba House would be to "let ourselves be wiped out as collateral damage."

At initial glance, such claims seem like wild hyperbole. If Cordoba House is built (as it most likely will be, all of our debate notwithstanding), Western civilization will not immediately come crashing down around our heads. The buildings of New York City will not suddenly crumble into dust. American women will not all start wearing burqas the next day. Cordoba House might encourage America's enemies to rejoice, gloat, and redouble their commitment, but it will not put food in their bellies, improve the lethality of their weapons, or strengthen their muscles.

Moreover, blocking the construction of Cordoba House (extremely unlikely in today's political context) would not somehow magically make Iran's nuclear facilities disappear, grant Obama the spine to stand up to America's enemies, or remove the deadly restrictions placed on America's soldiers. For most militant Islamists and Americans, life will continue as before whether or not Cordoba House reaches completion. (Indeed, most Americans never even will have heard of Cordoba House upon its construction.)

What, then, are those claims getting at?

The central argument, I believe, is this. The location of Cordoba House is indeed supremely relevant. Its location was selected expressly because the building was damaged by the 9/11 attacks. Regardless of the views and intentions of the center's organizers (actual or stated), an Islamic center, within the damage zone of the 9/11 attacks, cannot help but embolden America's Islamist enemies and signal America's moral capitulation. The message to America's enemies is essentially this: "You are strong, and America is weak. If you attack us, you can profit from your attacks. If you destroy our buildings, you can build a shrine to your ideology there as a sign of your conquest." Such a center can only spur on our Islamist enemies to further violence. Such a principle of capitulation indeed threatens our long-term survival, according to this argument.

Notice that the argument about location depends solely on the impact of the Islamic center on the motivation of America's enemies, not on any material benefit it might bestow to those enemies. The relevant impact takes place entirely within the heads of the Islamists.

Thus, the building of Cordoba House represents a symbolic victory for America's enemies, and blocking it would constitute a symbolic victory for America's self-defense.

The question, then, is whether a symbolic display may ever properly be proscribed legally. My initial reaction is to say no; the First Amendment properly protects symbolic expression, and only actions (including active provocation of violence) properly may be criminalized.

Consider protests involving the burning of the American flag. Many conservatives want to pass a Constitutional amendment banning the disrespectful burning of the American flag. (Burning a worn flag to respectfully dispose of it constitutes proper etiquette.) I learned about flag etiquette from my grandfather, who fought in the Pacific Rim during World War II. Whenever I see an American flag, I think about how my grandfather had to walk a field picking up body pieces of his friends after the Japanese bombed his camp. I will not tolerate the disrespectful burning of an American flag in my presence; if I can maintain sufficient composure to do so, I will leave the scene. Conservatives argue, and I agree, that disrespectfully burning an America flag symbolizes a hateful attack on the essence of America. Nevertheless, I do not advocate legally prohibiting the disrespectful burning of an American flag, and I know of no Objectivist who advocates banning it.

The fact that I experience revulsion toward the burning of an American flag does not justify outlawing the activity; likewise, revulsion towards Cordoba House does not justify forcibly blocking it.

Does the situation change in time of war? During all-out war, our very society, along with the legal system that protects our rights, stands at risk of utter destruction. May certain symbolic expressions therefore be prohibited in times of war?

Peikoff and others offer the example of Pearl Harbor: should the United States government have allowed a Shinto shrine near the site of the attack during WWII? (At first, I presumed that such a scenario was impossible because Pearl Harbor is a military base. However, looking at the map of the harbor, it is clear that it is surrounded by neighborhoods, golf courses, and farms. I have never been there in person.)

While others seem to think it is perfectly obvious that such a shrine should be prohibited in times of war, even if the shrine's organizers are known to have no ties to violence or the enemy, it is not obvious to me. I don't see what difference such a shrine would make either way. Think of it this way: should the United States government expend energy, during time of war, to forcibly stop construction of some ridiculous shrine? When the United States government is developing atomic bombs and blowing the holy hell out of Japan, is a shrine really what either side is going to be worried about? I submit that if the Japanese are gloating about the shrine (in this hypothetical situation), if they spend even a minute thinking about the shrine, then the United States has failed to effectively prosecute the war. If the shrine is a big deal to the enemy, then that signifies America is already losing the war.

There may be other very good reasons for blocking the Shinto shrine -- see the third argument below -- but its symbolism does not strike me as a forceful one.

Imagine you witnessed a street fight, and Fighter A spits on the shoe of Fighter B (who cannot escape the fight). What would you think if Fighter B agonized over the spittle and tried to carefully clean his shoe before proceeding with the fight? I submit that Fighter B should ignore his shoe and concentrate on smashing in the face of the aggressor.

Likewise, I submit that it is precisely this obsessive agonizing over Cordoba House that reflects a posture of defeat and surrender. Why would people spend one minute of their time trying to get rid of some damned prayer center, when they could spend that minute urging the United States government to take decisive action against America's true enemies? What exactly are our priorities, here? (I do think the debate over Cordoba House is useful insofar as it helps reveal the nature of America's enemies.)

I should address a couple of arguments from the other side. Amy Peikoff argues that symbols can indeed be important, and she points out that the U.S. ought not have handed over the Panama Canal to Panama. However, I fail to see how the U.S. handing over a U.S.-built structure to a foreign nation is comparable to the federal government not taking action regarding Cordoba House. In his podcast, Leonard Peikoff suggests that building Cordoba House is comparable to somebody who violently attacks your house, then later buys your house for a shrine. But there is an obvious difference: the builders of Cordoba house, however bad their ideas or evil their intentions, are not the same individuals who planned the 9/11 attacks.

We may criticize Cordoba House for its symbolic significance, but I fail to see how blocking a symbol accomplishes any serious goal or in any way compensates for failing to execute a real war.

3. "Cordoba House is uniquely positioned to promote violent Islam."

Even though Cordoba House's organizers have explicitly denounced terrorism, at least in the abstract, and even if they actively discourage terrorism, still Cordoba House might prove to be an especially strong lure to would-be terrorists, precisely because of its location. Even if Cordoba House's official policy opposes terrorism, the center's managers cannot hope to monitor the private meetings that take place within its walls. It might, then, become a place where potential terrorists meet and hatch their plans.

This seems to be the point Edward Cline is arguing in his recent, thoughtful article.

Those who find such threats implausible need only look to recent headlines; a couple of examples should suffice.

On May 4, the Washington Post reported:
A man was arrested late Monday night in connection with the failed Times Square bombing, administration officials said. The suspect, Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen from Pakistan, allegedly purchased the sport utility vehicle that authorities found packed with explosives in New York on Saturday night. ...

An FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force had taken over the investigation Monday amid growing indications of a possible international connection, U.S. officials and law enforcement sources said.
A June 18 follow-up article reports: "The suspect in the attempted bombing of Times Square received $12,000 from the Pakistani Taliban to carry out the plot, according to a federal indictment released Thursday that formally charges Faisal Shahzad with receiving training and support from the militant group."

On June 29, Bloomberg reported:
A Guyanese man, on the eve of his trial, pleaded guilty to his role in a plot to blow up New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Abdel Nur, 60, entered a guilty plea to a single count of providing support to terrorists before U.S. District Judge Dora Irizzary in Brooklyn, New York. The judge said the trial of Nur's two co-defendants is scheduled to begin tomorrow. The three hatched the plot in January 2006 and circulated their plan to an international network of Muslim extremists, prosecutors said.
Rauf himself has granted that special effort is required to "make sure mosques are not recruiting grounds for radicals." But what if Rauf's efforts prove inadequate at Cordoba House, which due to its location will prove a particularly strong draw for such "radicals?"

Moreover, some have speculated that Cordoba House will receive international money, probably in some cases tied to nefarious governments. The fact that tainted funds may be available again represents a failure of U.S. foreign policy. If the funds are tainted in a serious enough way, that might justify legal proceedings against Cordoba House based on existing laws. The point here is that if tainted funds indeed go to Cordoba House, that might accompany especially nasty influences.

To me, this third argument is by far the strongest rationale offered for blocking Cordoba House. The United States government could essentially state, "Look, we have good evidence that at least some people who would attend Cordoba House have evil intentions, and, given we are in the middle of prosecuting a war, we don't have the resources right now to investigate all the related issues. Therefore, until we have decisively won the war, your religious center is on hold, on the grounds of wartime emergency."

Of course, given the United States government has not, in fact, declared war on America's enemies, and indeed refuses even to recognize the ideological motivation of America's enemies, and even actively appeases many of America's enemies, I do not imagine that the current administration would actually invoke such an argument.

Moreover, I think the United States government could both prosecute a successful war and investigate possible terrorist plots at Cordoba House. Indeed, if it is true that Cordoba House would prove especially appealing to would-be terrorists, then it might even be advantageous for the U.S. government to watch them collect all at one spot.

If would-be terrorists aren't meeting at Cordoba House, they're not simply going to disappear. They're probably going to meet somewhere else. The premise of this third argument -- that Cordoba House would attract terrorist plotters -- actually seems to justify letting the center be built, so long as the United States government actively tracks suspected terrorists there.

On the other hand, perhaps Cordoba House would embolden more Muslims to plot violent attacks than otherwise would do so, even if they did not actually visit Cordoba House. However, this seems tentative and speculative to me, like the second argument reviewed above, and therefore a weak basis for legal action. In any case, Cordoba House might embolden more terrorists only in the context of a weak overall U.S. foreign policy. If the U.S. government decisively demonstrated the failure of militant Islam, no symbolic structure could overcome that.

However, as noted, I regard this third argument as a forceful one.

* * *

I have described what I see as the three major arguments for blocking Cordoba House. As I've indicated, I'm not persuaded that any of the arguments succeeds, though the third argument could gain force depending on the circumstances. If any critic believes that I have missed an important argument, or failed to see the strength of an argument, I hope that critic will explain the error.

Whether or not Cordoba House is built, I think it is important that those concerned about the Islamist threat refrain from blowing the significance of Cordoba House out of proportion. We must remain focussed on making the case to the American public and to its government that we need to get serious about defending the nation from militant Islam.

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