Thursday, August 26, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on the 'Ground Zero' Mosque

Christopher Hitchens
Photograph by John Huba
(Image from Vanity Fair)

As can be seen from the photo above, Christopher Hitchens is suffering side-effects from the chemotherapy that he's undergoing as treatment for his cancer, and he writes about this in an article, "Topic of Cancer," for the September 2010 issue of Vanity Fair:
The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here's the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade.
The tradeoff so far appears to be mainly hair loss since Hitchens is still quite lucid in his powers of concentration, as is also apparent from another article that he's recently penned for Slate, a piece titled "A Test of Tolerance" (August 23, 2010), for he raises there some clear-headed, pertinent questions about 'tolerance' in Islam(ism) in response to those who defend the proposed 'Ground Zero' Mosque against its sometimes vociferous critics:
Emboldened by the crass nature of the opposition to the center, . . . defenders [of the mosque] have started to talk as if it represented no problem at all and as if the question were solely one of religious tolerance. It would be nice if this were true. But tolerance is one of the first and most awkward questions raised by any examination of Islamism. We are wrong to talk as if the only subject was that of terrorism. As Western Europe has already found to its cost, local Muslim leaders have a habit, once they feel strong enough, of making demands of the most intolerant kind. Sometimes it will be calls for censorship of anything "offensive" to Islam. Sometimes it will be demands for sexual segregation in schools and swimming pools. The script is becoming a very familiar one. And those who make such demands are of course usually quite careful to avoid any association with violence. They merely hint that, if their demands are not taken seriously, there just might be a teeny smidgeon of violence from some other unnamed quarter . . .
Hitchens elides from Islamism to Islam in this passage, but he's making a subtle point, I think, on the difficulty of cleanly separating the two, for Islam itself too often elides into Islamism as we find so-called 'moderates' to be less than moderate. Hitchens thus wonders aloud about the moderate Imam Rauf, first quoting the imam's earlier advice on how President Obama should treat Iran:
He should say his administration respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution -- to establish a government that expresses the will of the people; a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, that establishes the rule of law.
About this, Hitchens remarks:
Coyly untranslated here (perhaps for "outreach" purposes), Vilayet-i-faquih is the special term promulgated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to describe the idea that all of Iranian society is under the permanent stewardship (sometimes rendered as guardianship) of the mullahs. Under this dispensation, "the will of the people" is a meaningless expression, because "the people" are the wards and children of the clergy. It is the justification for a clerical supreme leader, whose rule is impervious to elections and who can pick and choose the candidates and, if it comes to that, the results.
Narrowly construed, Hitchens is correct to note that the expression Vilayet-i-faquih is here untranslated, for in the passage quoted from Imam Rauf, it is untranslated, but more broadly considered, Hitchens is not quite right on this point, for in the text from which Imam Rauf's quote is lifted, the imam has already translated the expression:
After the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took the Shiite concept of the Rightly Guided Imam and created the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, which means the rule of the jurisprudent. This institutionalizes the Islamic rule of law. The Council of Guardians serves to ensure these principles.
But Hitchens is still correct to note that this "rule of the jurisprudent," which "institutionalizes the Islamic rule of law" -- two euphemistic juridical expressions along the lines of "lapidation" -- really means "that all of Iranian society is under the permanent stewardship (sometimes rendered as guardianship) of the mullahs," thereby rendering "the will of the people" void of any substance. Hitchens therefore rightly observes:
I do not find myself reassured by the fact that Imam Rauf publicly endorses the most extreme and repressive version of Muslim theocracy.
And Hitchens is equally justified in expecting Imam Rauf to answer a few questions:
I would like to see Imam Rauf asked a few searching questions about his support for clerical dictatorship in, just for now, Iran. Let us by all means make the "Ground Zero" debate a test of tolerance. But this will be a one-way street unless it is to be a test of Muslim tolerance as well.
And that would need to be tolerance by Western rather than by Islamist standards . . . or even than by Islamic ones, depending on which camp the imam belongs to. I'm assured by many, of course, that Imam Rauf is a moderate, and perhaps he is, but the statements of his that I've read appear opaquely ambiguous to me in the way that Tariq Ramadan's suggestion of a moratorium on stoning is ambiguous. When Imam Rauf advised Obama to respect the institution of the Vilayet-i-faqih established by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, perhaps he was offering purely pragmatic advice on dealing with a bitter foe with whom one must negotiate. But what if he truly believes in the supremacy of sharia (i.e., "the Islamic rule of law") as interpreted and enforced by the "rule of the jurisprudent"? That wouldn't be very moderate, would it? Would Imam Rauf's views then respect the will of the American people?

I'm with Hitchens on this. Let's pose a few "searching questions" to this imam about his fundamental religious views to see if we can locate his own personal 'ground zero'.

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At 10:55 AM, Blogger N.E. Brigand said...

Pose away. However, while I too would like to know the answers to those questions, I have to accept that there is no legal obligation for Rauf to answer -- and I agree that there should not be.

In related news, I was tickled by Jon Stewart's clever observation that to watch Fox News is to help pay for this "Cordoba House" mosque.

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No legal obligation, of course, but a moderate religious leader would presumably want to clarify his position.

I've not seen Stewart's show, but I'm guessing that it has something to do with Saudi financial links to Fox and to the mosque.

Anyway, good to hear from you again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:44 PM, Blogger N.E. Brigand said...

I agree that a moderate religous leader should clarify comments that seem to support extremist views. However, a moderate could still be feeling stung by the harsh criticism --some of it wildly inappropriate, some perhaps not-- that this project has received over the past several weeks, particularly as it got a warm response (including even praise from a Fox reporter interviewing the imam's wife) when it was announced last December.

Also, even if it should turn out that Rauf's views are as extremist as Hitchens fears they might be, that would be insufficient grounds for stopping the project; the Constitutional issue is pretty clear.

I would also note, that if Rauf has said some things that may show support for Islamist extremists, he also had the decency, or courage, to state, "I am a Jew; I have always been one", at the memorial service for Daniel Pearl.

As to Stewart, you are correct that he was observing that one of the mosque's funders is reported to be Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who holds the second-largest amount of stock in News Corp. Granted, Al-Waleed owns stock in many other well-known companies, but what Stewart was specifically focusing on was the peculiar way in which Fox commentators were questioning the motives of one of the mosque's reported funders, without ever naming him, and certainly without indicating that viewers were helping to fund him by watching Fox.

At 1:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the additional information on various things.

As for constitutional limits to governmental regulation of religion, I would suspect that the founding fathers had a particular view of what constitutes legitimate religious activity, such that groups working toward theocracy would not able to claim constitutional protection.

But what do I know about legal issues?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:09 PM, Blogger Nathan Rein said...

All this assumes that Rauf's personal religious convictions are relevant to the questions at hand. If a pastor wanted to construct a church at an equivalent distance from the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, would he be required to answer "searching questions" about his views on, say, Rushdoony? Would people be combing through every recorded public utterance he's ever made? Somehow I doubt it. What apparently matters here is that (1) Rauf is a Muslim, which seems to make everyone think he has obligations (moral if not legal) to justify himself in ways a Christian or Jew would never have to, and that (2) the site is located where it is, i.e., in Lower Manhattan, which has enough power of association with 9-11 that people outside New York feel like they can make political hay put of calling it "Ground Zero". As far as I can discern, neither one of these factors is enough to legitimize the attacks on the Park51 project.

At 4:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"All this assumes that Rauf's personal religious convictions are relevant to the questions at hand."

Rauf's religious views are not simply personal ones, especially since in Islam, the personal is so often the political, and because he's stated that he wants to place the mosque near Ground Zero to build a bridge between Muslims and non-Muslims, then I would like to know his 'personal' religious views rather closely in order to judge what sort of bridge is being constructed and which direction the traffic is going to flow.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:09 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

All we should want is that Rauf respect the law. The will of the American people is what?

Building that center will not suddenly make New Yorker's capitulate to Sharia and many of those who are offended could care less what the Iman's views are. The terrorist if they wanted could build the bomb in the subway station under ground zero.

Life is full of insensitivity. As they always say to Black folk."get over it"

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Cobb said...

The difficulty with Rauf is that he has harpooned the great white whale of 9/11 and the WTC to his pet project, and that is no beast to easily tangle with. In this regard, his views are beside the point. If our own President is incapable of articulating a vision of inspiration as regards the proper symbolism of 9/11, the chances for Rauf are nil.

As moderate as Rauf may or may not be, what he appears to be singularly lacking is any ecumenical support. Where are the major clergy in New York speaking about religious tolerance? If he had any credibility on that score, the ground would have been much more fertile. If he wants a Muslim version of the 92nd Street Y, then we should see the same hundreds of sponsors on his plaque that we see at the Y. He hasn't done his diligence - not even in New York City, much less the nation.

At 8:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I'm not myself offended by the imam -- though I do wonder about his bridge-building skills -- but I am interested in his religious views, particularly his views on sharia.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cobb, thanks for the comment. This is all new to me, so I know nothing about his ecumenical support.

I keep hearing that he's a 'moderate' . . . whatever that means.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:58 AM, Blogger Nathan Rein said...

Okay, let's say I revise my comment and omit the word "personal." The point remains exactly the same.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'd still like to know those religious views, whether one calls them personal or not.

By the same token, I'd be very critical of any Christian group calling for theocracy.

Legal issues would arise at some point, I suspect, if a theocratic group wanted to institutionalize its beliefs. Not every religious practice would be acceptable as a legal exercise of religion.

But again, I'm no legal expert.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:01 AM, Blogger Nathan Rein said...

No, but religious opinions are always protected. If Rauf -- just like anyone else -- starts committing crimes, well, then he's committing crimes. But we don't police thoughts here in the U.S. That's my point. People can think whatever outrageous things they want, and they are still allowed to enter into real estate contracts and so forth.

And it is undeniable, as far as I can tell, that no private Christian individual who wants to pastor a church ever has to answer questions about his views in the way people apparently think Rauf should. The implication is that all Muslims are tainted with the brush of 9-11. I can't see any other way to understand it. This might seem reasonable to the pundits of or to Newt Gingrich, but it's still bigotry. Back in 2001 and 2002 people still had the decency to remind one another that all Muslims were not to be lumped together and blamed for terrorism. Apparently that's not true any more.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree that religious opinions are protected, as is free speech, though even on these points there are legal restrictions.

I wouldn't agree that bigotry is behind all of the questioning directed toward Imam Rauf. Hitchens doesn't seem to be motivated by bigotry. I don't believe that I am, either.

Islamism is a major problem that has to be acknowledged, and inquiring into the views of an imam is perfectly reasonable -- and, I might add, also protected speech.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:06 AM, Blogger Nathan Rein said...

Maybe "bigotry" is too strong a word, but the fact is, the kind of scrutiny that Rauf is attracting is reserved for Muslims, and the fact that he's Muslim is apparently understood as sufficient justification for the scrutiny.

At 7:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Constant vigilance is the price of liberty. Scrutiny is the mint of freedom -- if I might be allowed a new 'coinage'.

There are theocratic movements on the right wing of Christianity, too, and one danger lies in a commingling of such theocratic views with presentist-eschatological readings of Revelation that would drive fanatical Christians toward religious violence aimed at realizing the millenial kingdom of God. Vigilance is necessary there, too.

But that sort of Christian radicalism seems fairly marginal to me, at least in our time (though your own work of the Protestant Reformation would likely identify 16th- and 17th-century examples), whereas radicalism within Islam appears unfortunately widespread these days.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:09 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I can understand your interest, but for America to remain a democracy it isn't necessary for us to be experts on Islam.

Most of the people who have questioned Rauf's motives and theology are not really interested in knowledge, that are interested in stirring up the majority of the populace. They aren't even interested in the end of terrorism, just the kind that might occur in America by foreigners(Muslims). They seem to be apologist for the Militia groups when they have been arrested for acts of terrorism or plotting terrorist acts. Timothy McVeigh is seen more as a serial killer, not as some person driven by ideology.

Islam may or may not have changed in 14 centuries, but the only way they have conquered had been because they had better weapons and more people using them. Not much was done through verbal persuasion.

I think those that want a Christian Nation or as they say bring the US back to being a Christian nation are more dangerous, because the people who have the most power profess to be Christian. Part of this anti-Muslim rhetoric is because the Christians think they the Infidel. This may not be dominant in theological circles, but it is certainly on the net. During the Bush administration there were some directives that affected women health, that were stealthily put in place because of his personal Christian view. One of the main reasons I got out an voted for Obama, because I didn't want Sarah Palin anywhere near our government. Some of her Christian influences are beyond the fringe.

Much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric sound to much like the angry shouts during the Civil Rights marches and protest.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Hathor, for the alert. You're surely correct about the different approaches. Islam is weak in the US, and so is Islamism. Radical fringe groups among Christians have more leverage due to the broad power of Christianity among Americans. I don't get around much on the internet, so I haven't seen as much as you have, and living outside of the States has left me out of touch on a lot of issues.

Jeffery Hodges

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