Alex Massie

A Question of Provocation at Ground Zero? Lessons from The Satanic Verses

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Despite what some readers and commenters seem to think, I don't believe that all opponents of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" (which, as one wag put it, is neither at Ground Zero nor any more a mosque than a Vegas casino is a cathedral because it contains a wedding chapel) are bigots or that all opposition to it is necessarily rooted in prejudice.

Indeed initially I viewed the proposal with some measure of scepticism. But as the debate has rumbled on and as I've thought about it some more I'm increasingly convinced that the arguments against it, however well-meaning, are flawed and flimsy.

One of the recurring arguments against the plan is that, however well-intentioned its backers may be, it represents an unfortunate and unnecessary "provocation". Even if those involved mean no harm and don't mean to "provoke" they should have been wise enough to appreciate that their proposal was bound to provoke a hostile reaction. Which means they should think again.

That's certainly an argument; I just don't think it's a very good one. It is a familiar one, however. Cast your mind back 20 years and remember the rumpus that erupted when Salman Rushdie had the temerity, the gall, the bare-arsed effrontery to publish The Satanic Verses. There were those - including plenty of so-called liberals - who effectively sided with the book-burners and maniacs who protested against Rushdie (and the Penguin group) calling for the book to be banned.

Rushdie, you see, should have appreciated that publishing was bound to provoke people and, this being so, he should have been wise enough to pulp his novel. Yes, yes, of course we all believe in the right to freedom of expression but, in this instance, is it really sensible to insist upon it in such a provocative fashion? If there's a backlash, well, poor Rushdie has brought it upon himself hasn't he? He should have known better.

It was, as Christopher Hitchens has often argued a telling and not-so small moment that showed how willing many soi-disant liberals were to abandon liberalism as soon as that liberalism was tested. Liberty must be trimmed or even abandoned for fear its expression might upset someone else. The "right" not to be offended trumped all other more ancient and worthwhile rights.

But no-one has the right not to be offended and to try and insist upon such a right is a) absurd b) wrong and c) deeply inimical to the values of the kind of society we like to think we may, in our better moments anyway, be.

As with the Rushdie case, so with this "Ground Zero Mosque". You can be as offended by it as you want to be but the mere fact that you may be offended does not trump other, more vital, considerations and nor does it give you any kind of moral, let alone substantive, veto over proceedings. Your outrage is not persuasive and nor does it shift the fundamental aspects of the matter.

Which is why the sub-Augustinian stuff we've been hearing lately is so depressing. Grant me religious tolerance lord - and a respect for the Constitution! - but not here and not yet, not now! That, you must understand, would be too hard.

So I'm nor surprised by how pathetic leading Democrats have been.  Harry Reid's opposition* to the Park51/Cordoba House proposal was every bit as feeble as I'd expect from such a nasty little man. Howard Dean's comments were equally grim:

"We have to understand that it is a real affront to people who lost their lives, including Muslims. That site doesn't belong to any particular religion, it belongs to all Americans and all faiths."

belonging to Islam

The test of whether you really believe in these things is, as with democracy, they produce outcomes with which you are not necessarily wholly comfortable. Much - not all, but much - of the opposition to this building fails that test. And, again, the nature of this opposition and the grounds upon which that opposition has been predicated has convinced me that it will be a grievous defeat for liberty is this project is defeated or forced to move elsewhere.

Oh, and when it comes to the families, let's not pretend that there's unanimity there either. Whatever you may think of his recent advocacy, I believe Ted Olsen still has standing as a 9/11 widower and so I'd hope that his views might, if the relatives' opinions must determine this matter (though they should not) be given some weight:

I do believe that people of all religions have a right to build edifices or structures, places of religious worship or study where the community allows them to do it under zoning laws and that sort of thing. And that we don’t want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith. And I don’t think it should be a political issue. It shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat issue either. I believe Governor Christie from New Jersey said it as well, that this should not be in that political partisan marketplace.

*Needless to say, Nancy Pelosi's suggestion that the "financing" of those opposed to the plan should also be "investigated" is equally, if typically, asinine.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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