I absolutely endorse freedom of conscience, which entails freedom of religion. I may disagree with your views on religion, politics, or whatever else, but, so long as you peacefully advocate those views, I will fight for your right to do so. As Ayn Rand eloquently argued, property rights are an integral aspect of any right; one cannot speak if forbidden to use one's pen, voice, or printing press, and one cannot freely practice religion if one cannot build a suitable meeting facility using one's own property and resources, or rent a facility from a consenting provider.
The implications of this seem pretty clear: individuals and voluntary organizations have the right to build religious structures on their own property, using their own resources, regardless of what anyone thinks about it, provided the religious practitioners do not violate anyone's rights in the process. Christians have the right to build Christian churches in Muslim neighborhoods. Atheists have the right to build centers in religious communities. Satanists have the right to build a church near a cathedral in a Catholic country. And Muslims have the right to build mosques even when some of the neighbors take offense. It's called freedom.
In fact, Muslims plan to build a mosque near the World Trade Center, as USA Today reports. (Trey Givens points out the proposed site is a couple blocks away from the WTC.) Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, said the purpose of the facility is to amplify "the voices of the mainstream and silent majority of Muslims" and "be part of the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan." A local supporter added, "This is a tremendous gesture to show that we're [Muslims] not all full of hatred and bigotry."
Naturally, others strongly oppose the idea, seeing it as insensitive and a statement of Islamic victory over the West. And of course people have the right to express their views on either side.
What people do not have the right to do (using "right" in its fundamental sense as the standard of a society's laws) is forcibly block the building of a religious structure on private property. (As the USA Today article points out, the developers in fact own the building.)
While a number of people (including a few I respect) have argued that the mosque should be legally blocked, I do not find any of their arguments persuasive. Let us consider them.
Gotham Resistance claims that forbidding the mosque would preserve "decency, fairness, and the American way of life" and strike a blow against "radical Islam and political correctness." Yet, if we take the First Amendment seriously, then decency, fairness, and the American way of life means protecting religious liberty. If by "radical Islam" we mean violent Islam, then obviously the government should protect U.S. citizens from that. But I have seen no evidence that the building of the mosque will be a violent activity. People have the right to nonviolently practice Islam and political correctness.
Certainly the fact that some Americans are offended by the building of a mosque near the World Trade Center is no good reason to prohibit the mosque. Similarly, the fact that many Muslims are offended by images of Mohammed is no good reason to prohibit such images, and I participated in Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.
Over at the eclectically conservative Townhall, John Hawkins essentially argues that everybody's rights properly are subject to majority rule or nationalistic concerns. Hawkins argues that rights are not absolute; for instance, the First Amendment protects neither protests at funerals nor the burning of the American flag at a protest. But he is wrong. Americans have every right to protest whatever event they see fit, though the right of free speech does not imply that one may interfere with somebody else's use of private property or sanctioned use of public property. Thus, a protest that physically disrupts a funeral is the practice of violence, not free speech. Likewise, while one does not have a right to burn somebody else's flag, one has the right to treat one's own property at one's discretion (in consonance with others' rights).
If the right of free speech may be curtailed because the target of a protest might be offended, then there is no such thing as free speech. For instance, Christians could be forcibly prohibited from protesting abortion clinics because the owners and patrons of the clinic take offense.
Hawkins continues, "For other Muslims to try to benefit from that act [the destruction of the World Trade Center] by building a mosque on that spot is insensitive, disgusting, and utterly vile." I am not persuaded that the Muslims involved in the project intend to benefit from the destruction of the WTC. Whether or not they do, Americans have the right to do things with their own property and resources that others regard as "insensitive, disgusting, and utterly vile." (If that weren't the case, then Townhall also could be outlawed.)
Hawkins further argues, "Traditionally, Islam has built mosques on historical sites as a sign of conquest." The New York mosque will be named Cordoba House, according to Hawkins and others in honor of the mosque build in Spain that heralded the Islamist takeover of that nation. Moreover, the building of the mosque will encourage "radical Islam" overseas.
If there is real evidence that the builders of the mosque actively plan to forcibly overthrow the United States government or harm its citizens, then they should be prosecuted and imprisoned by the government. I have seen no such evidence.
If we are merely talking about some symbolic statement, then obviously Christian churches, "traditionally," have signified something very similar. (Try asking Central American Indians.) Free speech protects the right to make symbolic statements.
In fact, many Christian churches in the United States preach the conformity of U.S. law to Biblical law. Should all of those churches also be forcibly shut down?
It is true that the U.S. government has made only a pathetic, self-defeating effort to destroy America's enemies abroad. But the notion that the way to solve this problem is by domestic property restrictions is laughable.
Hawkins makes one final argument: regions of Europe have fallen to Sharia law, where local ruling Muslims act in defiance of regional law and blatantly violate the rights of locals. This I do not doubt. The U.S. government (in concert with local governments) should protect everyone in the country from violence and threats of violence. But violating property rights is neither an effective nor a just way to prevent the forcible imposition of Sharia law.
Hawkins's arguments illustrate that the opponents of the mosque wish to use their activism against the mosque as a proxy for fighting violent Islamists, a ridiculous approach. The way to fight violent Islam is to fight violent Islam, not restrict the property rights of apparently peaceful Muslims.
Another argument made against the mosque is that, allegedly, "the president of the Cordoba Initiative, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf calls for sharia law in America." Moreover, Rauf's father "was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood." (I have not independently verified these claims.)
Let us grant that, in America, we do not punish children for the sins of their fathers.
Do the organizers of the New York mosque in fact actively conspire to violate the rights of people within the United States? If the answer is yes, then the government should investigate and prosecute them. If the answer is no, then violating their property rights is unjust, unpractical, and frankly unAmerican.
A final argument I have heard is that we do not know who is funding the mosque, and perhaps at least some of the funding is coming from Saudi Arabia, money that could be tied to terrorist organizations. Again, the way to solve such a problem is NOT to restrict the property rights of people within the U.S. The fundamental question is this: why do international terrorist organizations continue to threaten the United States? Does anyone seriously think that restricting New York property will strike a blow against international terrorists?
If the organizers of the New York mosque were willfully tied to terrorist organizations, then that would be a matter for government action. I have seen no evidence that that is the case. If they unknowingly and indirectly receive funds with ties to terrorist organizations, then the appropriate response by the government is to destroy the terrorist network, seize the network's assets, and thereby prevent the transfer of those funds. But then the New York Muslims should be free to continue building their mosque and to seek funds from other sources.
I fully support public education efforts and peaceful protests to make known the dangers of violent Islam. If the property were mine, certainly no mosque would be built there. But the property isn't mine. And, here in America, we defend rights of speech, religion, and property.
Frankly, the campaign to forcibly shut down the mosque reeks of scapegoating. Consider this incident (via Salon) reported by a New Jersey columnist regarding an anti-mosque rally:
At one point, a portion of the crowd menacingly surrounded two Egyptian men who were speaking Arabic and were thought to be Muslims.
"Go home," several shouted from the crowd.
"Get out," others shouted.
In fact, the two men – Joseph Nassralla and Karam El Masry — were not Muslims at all. They turned out to be Egyptian Coptic Christians who work for a California-based Christian satellite TV station called "The Way." Both said they had come to protest the mosque.
"I'm a Christian," Nassralla shouted to the crowd, his eyes bulging and beads of sweat rolling down his face.
But it was no use. The protesters had become so angry at what they thought were Muslims that New York City police officers had to rush in and pull Nassralla and El Masry to safety.
Is this the sort of behavior that Americans now sanction?
In her post on the matter, Diana Hsieh makes clear the horrific consequences of violating people's rights based on their religious convictions:
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. ...
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? ...
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?
If anyone has evidence that the organizers of the New York mosque are involved in some criminal conspiracy or terrorist network, then let them bring forth the evidence. (If such evidence existed, the appropriate response hardly would be merely to restrict the property rights of the parties.) Otherwise, the property owners have the right to build whatever they wish on their property, regardless of who may take offense.
What is wrong with violent Islam is that it violates individual rights. It cannot be fought through additional violations of individual rights. If we wish to defeat violent Islam and its ideals, we must first commit ourselves fully to the protection of rights.
June 27 Update: My analysis basically lines up with that of Steve Simpson and Jim Woods. For the contrary view, listen to Leonard Peikoff's (pre-dated) June 28 podcast. I stress here that the underlying agreement among all those commentators is that the U.S. should in fact bring a real war to the nation's enemies, the state sponsors of Islamist terror. However, I continue to press two points: first, if such a war were brought, then the mosque near the World Trade Center would be an utterly moot point, and, second, giving the Obama administration the power to bomb American properties (as Peikoff suggests) strikes me as extremely horrifying.
June 28 Update: Diana Hsieh responds to Peikoff's podcast:
[T]he fact remains that our government is not at war with our Islamic enemies, not in any real sense. ... As a result of that failure, the actions of the government toward those enemies are limited. For example, our government cannot prosecute imams for treason when they give aid and comfort to enemy terrorist groups like Hamas. ...
The solution is not to pretend as if war has been declared -- and thereby empower the government to violate people's rights willy-nilly. The solution is not to eliminate the few remaining limits on government power that protect our capacity to speak freely. The solution is press hard for a proper war -- a war against our true enemies, a war fought purely on the basis of American self-interest. ...
I have also posted five questions for those who want to forcibly block the mosque.
June 28 Update: Paul Hsieh has posted excellent commentary about the nature of the debate.