Freedom to offend and be offended
President Obama, after saying that building a mosque at Ground Zero fit our "commitment to religious freedom," backtracked, saying he wasn't commenting on the 'wisdom' of building it so close to 'hallowed ground.'
A Fox News poll showed that while 61 percent of Americans believe that Cordoba House has a constitutional right to build near Ground Zero, 64 percent believe it is not appropriate to do so.
Does Obama's hedging show a lack of ethical convictions? Does Hamas' endorsement change the debate? What is behind public opposition to the site? Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?
I think the question is posed wrong. I wouldn't ask, "Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?" Instead, I would ask, "Can you believe in religious freedom without believing that religions can engage in inappropriate behavior?" The Bill of Rights in general and the First Amendment in particular protect our right to behave in ways that the majority deem inappropriate.
No, a mosque near Ground Zero wouldn't personally offend me anymore than a mosque in my neighborhood. I am offended, however, by many practices of Islam, among them its treatment of women, anti-scientific approaches, beliefs about prophets, beliefs about Allah, and reprisals against cartoonists.
I'm offended by practices in all religions, practices in which I defend the right of people to engage as long as they are not harming others. In a free society, we have the right to offend and to feel offended. On the other hand, since we're trying to live harmoniously together in a diverse country, it seems counter-productive to offend unnecessarily.
Islamic leaders have the right to build a mosque on private property on the edge of Ground Zero, but having the right to do something doesn't necessarily mean that the thing should be done. Muslims are aware of opinion polls that show overwhelming American opposition to such a mosque. How Muslims react to public opinion is up to them.
At the other end of the spectrum, I've engaged in spirited debates with humanists and atheists about the wording of signs on busses and billboards. It's often difficult to strike a balance between maximizing favorable publicity for our cause and minimizing offense taken by others. In my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina we put up a billboard that read, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." Other regions have had edgier signs. Some felt offended by our signs, but others thanked us.
What I've not heard from the Islamic community, perhaps out of ignorance on my part, is the same kind of spirited debate about whether to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero that many non-Muslims find offensive. If, in fact, such internal dissent for Muslims is prohibited or punished, I find that offensive. But then again, all religions have the right to offend me.
August 16, 2010; 8:47 PM ET
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