Ed Husain is an “adjunct senior fellow” with the Council on Foreign Relations. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, he explains how Saudi Arabia actively supports Islamic State and other Islamic terrorist organizations: “Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe.” Husain, himself a Muslim, believes the “rigid interpretation of Shariah” practiced by these violent Muslims is “un-Islamic.” Of course, they would claim that Husain’s moderation is “un-Islamic.” Regardless, hopefully Husain’s brand of partly Westernized Islam will win out over more barbaric variants.
Only the willfully blind can continue ignore the nature of the widespread Islamic totalitarian movement. Members of Islamic State (aka ISIS) recently slaughtered scores of Yazidi men in northern Iraq and “kidnapped ‘dozens’ of women and children,” Fox News reports. For now we can only imagine what will happen to these women and children. Islamic State has murdered “at least 500” Yazidis, Fox reports. Why did Muslims butcher these men? A Reuters report (mentioned by Fox) quotes senior Kurdish official Hoshiyar Zebari: “We believe it’s because of their creed: convert or be killed.” This was cold-blooded mass murder in the name of Allah.
Rick Santorum’s EchoLight Studies seeks to produce “high-quality movies for families of faith” that Santorum hopes to screen in churches, the Heritage Institute reports. At a Heritage event, Santorum said, “We want this company to be a tool to get people into the church and make the church the center of culture again.” Meanwhile, “Atheists in the US are rallying together, launching a new TV programme and providing support for those who go public with their beliefs,” reports the BBC.
I delivered a twenty-minute talk August 27 at Skepticamp in Colorado Springs titled, “Ayn Rand As Atheist.” I open with the American Values Network attack on Ayn Rand for her atheism, then I describe what her atheism actually entails.
Somebody pointed out that I may not set up an early quote about duty well enough; it comes from Rand’s Red Pawn (in Early Ayn Rand) and it comes from a character whose views Rand criticizes as typically Communist.
September 12 Update: Following is a write-up based on the same material.
That the left attacks Ayn Rand for her capitalist politics comes as no surprise. Today’s left, though, attacks Rand not only for her political conclusions, but specifically for her atheism. Decades ago, usually only the religious right employed that line of attack (and did so with a vengeance). Today’s left, far from consistently defending secular values and the separation of church and state, increasingly joins the religious right in bringing religion into politics.
Rand, on the other hand, consistently defended the separation of church and state. While she eloquently defended freedom of religion and freedom of conscience more broadly, she rejected religion throughout her career and defended reason based on the evidence of the natural world and objective values based on the life and happiness of the individual.
The leftist organization American Values Network prominently attacks Rand’s atheism in a web page and related video, touting residual media ranging from Time to USA Today to Fox News. The organization argues:
GOP leaders and conservative pundits have brought upon themselves a crisis of values. Many who for years have been the loudest voices invoking the language of faith and moral values are now praising the atheist philosopher Ayn Rand whose teachings stand in direct contradiction to the Bible. Rand advocates a law of selfishness over love and commands her followers to think only of themselves, not others. She said her followers had to choose between Jesus and her teachings.
GOP leaders want to argue that they are defending Christian principles. …As conservative evangelical icon Chuck Colson recently stated, Christians can not support Rand’s philosophy and Christ’s teachings. The choice is simple: Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ. We must choose one and forsake the other.
In fact American Values Network grossly distorts Rand’s views — she advocated appropriate loving relationships and thoughtfulness of others — but the organization’s deeper error lies in attacking Rand’s atheism while explicitly advocating a religious basis for politics (specifically a Christian basis rooted in Biblical texts). Note the enormous difference between logically or factually questioning Rand’s conclusions in politics and ethics (controversies beyond the scope of this article), and rejecting Rand’s ideas because she does not ground them in religion. The latter sort of attack should concern everyone who values the separation of church and state.
As a silver lining, the American Values Network campaign raises awareness of Rand’s criticisms of religion and faith-based politics, provoking thoughtful observers to discover the nature of Rand’s actual views. Thankfully, Rand eloquently explained and defended her views on religion. Considered on their merits, rather than filtered and stripped out of context by partisan character assassins, Rand’s positions constitute an important alternative to religion and a powerful defense of the separation of church and state. Those positions richly deserve a deeper look.
To set the context for Rand’s atheism, consider that she was born in pre-Soviet Russia in 1905 into a Jewish family. Thus, she never grew up with strong Christian (or even religiously Jewish) beliefs. (See Objectively Speaking, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz, page 226.) Marxism dominated many intellectual circles in Russia, with its emphasis on collectivism and antagonism toward religion. Rand moved to the United States in 1926 where, understandably, her antipathy toward Communism dominated much of her early thinking. Not until many decades later, in the mid-1970s as Rand approached the end of her life, did the religious right make serious attempts to ground politics on religious beliefs.
Yet, as Rand developed her philosophy over time and emphasized different aspects of it as the culture around her changed, she constantly advocated the same worldview of using reason to achieve life-based values in the natural world. This was true of her first professional writing in 1932 until her final public appearances in the early 1980s. By any sensible measure, Rand must be counted among the greatest atheist intellectuals of the 20th Century.
Many of the basic elements of Rand’s atheism appear in the first writing she sold, a 1932 screen treatment called Red Pawn. As the name suggests, the treatment largely deals with the evils of Soviet dictatorship, yet it also criticizes religion.
Rand criticizes the notion of duty that contradicts or stands beyond reason. The Communist character Commandant Karayev describes the duty-based view: “When it’s duty, you don’t ask why and to whom. You don’t ask any questions. When you come up against a thing about which you can’t ask any questions — then you know you’re facing your duty.” (The Early Ayn Rand, edited by Leonard Peikoff, page 120.) Rand rejected any attempt to act outside of reason, whether from a religious or collectivist motivation.
Rand’s description of Karayev reveals much about her views of religion as well as Communism:
He stood at the door. At one side of him was a painting of a saint burning at the stake…renouncing the pleasures and tortures of the flesh for the glory of his heaven; at the other side — a poster of a huge machine with little ant-sized men, sweating at its gigantic levers, and the inscription: “Our duty is our sacrifice to the red collective of the Communistic State!” (The Early Ayn Rand page 136.)
For Rand, Communism does not fundamentally stand opposed to religion; instead, the Communists substituted the authority of the state (with its Commisars) for the authority of a religion (with its priests and sacred texts). While the religious authorities demand individual sacrifices for God or his works, the collectivist authorities demand sacrifices for the state or some collective end. As Leonard Peikoff summarizes in his introduction to the work, “Ayn Rand saw clearly that Communism, contrary to its propaganda, is not the alternative to religion, but only a secularized version of it, with the state assuming the prerogatives once reserved to the supernatural” (The Early Ayn Rand page 108).
For Rand, then, atheism is not enough. Atheism merely states a negative, an absence or rejection of theism and its supernatural realm. People can reject God and yet advocate irrational and even evil ideas. What matters is one’s positive philosophy, and Rand’s philosophy of reason grounded in natural evidence and earthly values consequently precludes theism. While American Christians reacted strongly against the atheism of Communism, particularly during the Cold War, Rand saw the similarities between the two camps as more substantial than the differences.
Rand’s 1936 novel We the Living, again set in Soviet Russia, addresses (at its periphery) the ethics and psychology of religion. Consider a telling exchange between two of the characters, Kira and Andrei:
“Do you believe in God, Andrei?”
“Neither do I. But that’s a favorite question of mine. An upside-down question, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I asked people whether they believed in life, they’d never understand what I meant. It’s a bad question. It can mean so much that it really means nothing. So I ask them if they believe in God. And if they say they do — then, I know they don’t believe in life.”
“Because, you see, God — whatever anyone chooses to call God — is one’s highest conception of the highest possible. And whoever places his highest conception above his own possibility thinks very little of himself and his life. It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it.” (We the Living, by Ayn Rand, page 97-98 in the 1959 Random House edition.)
Here Rand suggests that religion tends to stand in the way of worldly values by encouraging people to place their hopes of achieving values in some afterlife. One chooses this life and the values of this life, or one neglects or denigrates this life in favor of an imagined world beyond death. (That many people in fact act on contradictory ideas and commitments would not surprise Rand.) Rand presents a highly idealistic vision of values in the sense that they are achievable in this life.
Religion drops even further to the background in Rand’s 1940 novel The Fountainhead, but that book too makes some criticisms of religion. Consider an exchange between the main character Howard Roark and his early mentor:
“Why did you decide to be an architect?”
“I didn’t know it then. But it’s because I’ve never believed in God.”
“Come on, talk sense.”
“Because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them.” (The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, page 39 in the 1994 Plume edition.)
The dialogue again emphasizes Rand’s focus on this-worldly values, as opposed to the supernatural realm.
In his famous courtroom speech, Roark adds:
That man [the creator] the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning. Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures — because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer — because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. (The Fountainheadpage 710.)
Here Rand presents religion as backwards mysticism that stands in the way of this-wordly values.
Rand’s criticisms of religion become more pronounced and developed withAtlas Shrugged in 1957.
John Galt makes a number of pointed criticisms of religion (and collectivism) in his detailed radio address, including the following:
The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive — a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence. The good, say the mystics of muscle, is Society — a thing which they define as an organism that possesses no physical form, a superbeing embodied in no one in particular and everyone in general except yourself. (Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, page 1027 in the 1992 Dutton edition.)
The mystics of both schools… are germs that attack you through a single sore: your fear of relying on your mind. They tell you that they possess a means of knowledge higher than the mind, a mode of consciousness superior to reason… (Atlas Shrugged page 1034.)
Here Rand emphasizes the irrationality of supernatural religious presumptions or their collectivist counterparts. Whereas, in Red Pawn, Rand revealed the psychology of turning to religion in rejection of worldly values, in Atlas Shrugged she sees as a source of mysticism the fear of relying on one’s reasoning mind as the sole means of knowledge.
Following the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand turned more to nonfiction writing and speaking, when she continued to attack the mysticism and self-sacrifice of religion and its subversion of reason in politics.
In 1960, Rand delivered an address at Yale titled, “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World.” In this talk, she again explicitly defends reason against the mysticism of religion: “Reason is the faculty which perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.Mysticism is the claim to a non-sensory means of knowledge.” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand, page 63 in the 1984 Signet edition.) Moreover, Rand argues that rejecting reason in favor of religious faith in politics leads inexorably to conflict, violence, and rule by brute force:
[F]aith and force are corellaries, and… mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the onlyobjective means of communication and of understanding among men… But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding [is possible]. (Philosophy: Who Needs It page 70. Note that a typographical error appears in some printings of this book, corrected here with the bracketed text.)
In another talk later in 1960, Rand blasted conservatives for attempting to ground their politics in religious faith: “Politically, such a claim contradicts the fundamental principles of the United States: in America, religion is a private matter which cannot and must not be brought into political issues” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand, page 197 of the 1967 Signet edition).
Rand’s warning about the inevitable strife of faith-based politics, and her resounding endorsement of the separation of church and state, should serve to jolt the rising Religious Left to its senses. Those who believe they can defeat Rand’s political positions using logic and reason are free to try it. But rejecting Rand’s ideas specifically because they are atheistic, and calling instead on a politics grounded on religious faith and sacred texts, invites long-term disaster in America, logically tending toward theocracy.
Over the course of her career, Rand fought for naturalism, a focus on this world, as opposed to supernaturalism. She advocated reason grounded in the evidence of the senses, not faith or mystical intuition. She advocated a morality based on the lives and well-being of real individuals, rather than some allegedly transcendent realm. She fought for a politics grounded in reason and individual rights. Rand presented these ideas in riveting novels that continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year to readers hungry for Rand’s idealized, value-based, story-driven “Romantic realism.” Through essays, lectures, and public appearances throughout the rest of her life, Rand continued to advocate her positive philosophy as well as the rightful separation of church and state.
Despite Rand’s decades of intellectual achievements, today more than any other literary figure she becomes the target of nasty and fact-challenged smears by both the left and the right. The left hates her for her capitalism, while the right hates her for her atheism — though the left increasingly joins the right in this, as the American Values Network illustrates.
Those who reject Rand’s moral and political theories would do well to take a second look at what she actually advocated and why, as her views suffer continual distortions in the popular media. Yet even those who disagree with Rand’s specific conclusions should recognize her achievements and her status as a preeminent 20th Century atheist intellectual and, more fundamentally, a champion of reason and liberty.
“Anonymous” left the following comment on September 11, 2011: Ari, not sure if this was the session where you talked about the left incorporating in more overt ways the religious (principally Christian) creed of self-sacrifice or not. But it got me thinking about an interview between the American play-write Arthur Miller and Jonathan Miller. In it, Arthur Miller touches on this idea, but levels an even greater warning: the combination of Christianity, Judaism, and nationalism – literally lethal in his view. It is a great interview, and is part of a collection of interviews with several atheists entitled The Atheism Tapes (BBC). Cheers! B Danielson
Are the Harry Potter novels essentially Christian works? In my new essay,“Religion In Harry Potter Revisited,” I argue that, while the novels feature some religious symbolism and themes, those do not fundamentally drive the stories or motivate the heroes.
I recorded a talk based on an abbreviated version of the same material.
I’m in the middle of preparing my notes for a talk on the religious themes of Harry Potter. I came across some material that I thought about citing but that’s a bit too goofy to use in the talk. So consider this an outtake.
On her web page, Denise Roper quotes some material from her book, The Lord of the Hallows:
“How in the name of heaven did Harry survive?” asked Professor McGonagall at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (SS 12) This is the first of many examples of how the language of Christianity is used throughout the series. … In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Mr. Weasley asks, “Good lord, is it Harry Potter?” (CS 39) Draco refers to Harry as “Saint Potter, the Mudbloods’ friend.” (CS 223) Dumbledore even leads the Hogwarts students and faculty in “a few of his favorite carols” at Christmastime. (CS 212) In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the manager of Flourish and Blotts says “thank heavens” (PA 53)… and Remus Lupin says “My God.” (PA 363) … In these numerous references and in many others, there is evidence of a belief in the Christian God in the world of Harry Potter. (The Lord of the Hallows pages 69-70) [Various page numbers Roper cites include abbreviations for the relevant Potter book.]
My initial response to that is simply: “Oh my God.”
For good measure, Roper adds:
[T]here are jokes about a wizard being “saint-like” or “holy” (George on page 74 [of Deathly Hallows]). That George Weasley would call himself “holy” (“hole-y”) refers to his missing ear, which was cursed off during a battle with the Death Eaters. St. George was a Christian saint…”
Sorry, but that’s just silly.
To take but one example, Lupin says “My God” when he discovers that Scabbers the rat is actually Peter Pettigrew. Obviously he’s using the phrase as an expression of surprise, akin to “unbelievable.” We live in a culture with deep Christian roots, so it’s not surprising that people often use religious-sounding language in basically non-religious contexts. Tons of people say things like “God damn it,” “Jesus Christ,” “Christ Almighty,” “Lord help us,” and so on, when they don’t actually intend any religious meaning.
If religious humor is enough to indicate religiosity, then I have a few to tell you about the priest who walks into a bar.
Now, it’s true that the mere presence of words like “Christmas” in Rowling’s magical world indicates a shared religious tradition with the Muggles. That’s not surprising; the stories are set in England, and wizards do not formally segregate themselves from the non-magical Muggle world until 1689 (see page 13 of The Tales of Beedle the Bard.) But the incidental use of Christian language indicates nothing more profound than that.
Roper also makes some valid points about the religious themes in Harry Potter, but, to learn about such topics, you’d do much better to read my essay for eSkeptic, “Religion in Harry Potter.” Or read my book.
Anonymous commented August 2, 2011 at 7:52 AM
When viewed through a strict Christian lens, Harry Potter is nothing more than black magic and witchcraft.
Ari commented August 2, 2011 at 8:02 AM
The comment by anonymous is false, for reasons I explain here:
Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 7:44 AM
According to the Holy Bible, if it is not the Holy Spirit, it is Black Magic.
You pick where Harry gets his power.
Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 8:02 AM
I followed the link you provided. I read it. You are a good writer however this is no substitute for your lack of Biblical understanding and lack of Biblical Faith. Using David Kopel, a man I know and respect, is no excuse. David’s comparison of Harry Potter and CS Lewis is a mistake by David. CS Lewis purposely used subject matter children could relate with, to spread the message of the Holy Bible. The chosen tactics of CS Lewis are questionable as he did have a past with the occult prior to conversion. To compare CS Lewis to Harry Potter implies J.K. Rowling was also using an understandable subject matter to transport the Christian doctrine. David Kopel and his comparison are irrelevant and misleading. Shame on David.
As an avid reader of the Holy bible, I can say this. God is incredibly possessive. If it does not originate with Him and glorify Him, it is from the dark one. In Gods Eyes, there is no in-between.
Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 9:21 AM
… and I think “anonymous” has successfully self-parodied!
antiplanner commented June 21, 2012 at 9:21 AM
So automobiles, computers, and refrigerators, none of which “originated with Him,” must all be from “the dark one.”
Did Joseph Ratzinger condemn the Harry Potter novels before he became Pope?
In my book Values of Harry Potter, I write on page 10: “Before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger warned Catholics to beware the books’ ‘subtle seductions,’ according to Catholic News Service.” My source is a January 15, 2008, story by Cindy Wooden titled, “Writers in Vatican newspaper debate lessons of Harry Potter novels.”
In my article published just yesterday by eSkeptic, “Religion in Harry Potter,” I use a different source to make the same point. I write, “Before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger said the books threaten to ‘corrupt the Christian faith’…” For this I use a January 16, 2008, article by Katherine Phan of Christianity Today, “Vatican slams Harry Potter as ‘wrong kind of hero.'”
However, in his 2008 book How Harry Cast His Spell — which I also cite in my eSkeptic piece — John Granger claims the story about Ratzinger is false (see pages 266-67). Is it true that “Pope Benedict XVI has condemned Harry Potter,” Granger asks? He writes that LifeSiteNews “started this absurd Skeeter effect that won’t go away.” (Rita Skeeter is the corrupt and deeply dishonest journalist in the Potter series.) To Granger, claims that Ratzinger “commented on [the Potter novels] critically” is “laughable.”
Granger writes, “[A]n article in the Catholic News Service the week the LifeSiteNews post was made… denied the Pope had taken a position on the matter.” Granger continues, “The Harry Potter books… have not been opposed, condemned, or criticized by any agency or person of authority in the Vatican… The Pope certainly hasn’t spoken on the subject. … The Pope doesn’t oppose Harry Potter.”
However, while Granger accuses LifeSiteNews of bogus Rita Skeeter-like journalism, in fact it is Granger who is distorting the record.
The LifeSiteNews article of July 13, 2005, “Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels” (which was apparently updated at some point) includes a translated transcript of Ratzinger’s letter. (Granger suggests the letter may have been written by “a page in [Ratzinger’s] office,” but regardless the note carries Ratzinger’s name.)
The web page makes available a scanned copy of the letter. It is written on the letterhead of “Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger” and dated March 7, 2003. While English translations may vary, the letter clearly talks about the possible “subtle seduction” (“subtile Verführengen”) of the novels. The letter also talks about corrupting the soul (“das Christentum in der Seele zersetzen”).
Is Granger correct that another article “denied the Pope had taken a position on the matter?” No.
It turns out that Cindy Wooden also wrote the July 14, 2005, article forCatholic News Service, “New attention given to 2003 Cardinal Ratzinger letter on Harry Potter.” Here is what Wooden writes:
In the cardinal’s letter, excerpted on [recipient Gabriele] Kuby’s Web site and published widely since late June, he praised the author’s attempt to ‘enlighten people about Harry Potter’ and the possible ‘subtle seductions’ that can distort children’s thinking before they mature in the Christian faith.
Contrary to Granger’s suggestion, the article does not deny that Ratzinger took a position on the Potter novels. Instead, Wooden writes:
Although the Vatican press office July 14 said it would have no comment on the letter since Pope Benedict XVI and his secretary were on vacation in the northern Italian Alps, a former Vatican official said Harry Potter books must be read as children’s literature, not theology.
Granger seems to be playing something of a game here. He says “the Pope” has not taken a position on the Potter novels, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ratzinger in fact took a critical position, before he became Pope. And that remains the interesting point.
Apparently Satan is making a comeback these days. First came an over-the-top silly article from First Things titled, “The Fountainhead of Satanism,” in which Joe Carters claims, “[Ayn] Rand’s doctrines are satanic.” The argument goes something like this: because a crazy person liked Ayn Rand, therefore Rand’s ideas reflect the beliefs of the crazy person. (Thankfully, no crazy or homicidal person has every claimed to find motivation in or affinity with Christianity.)
Then I was shopping in Costco and saw Ann Coulter’s new book, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America. Perhaps, I thought, she’s using the term “demonic” metaphorically, to mean something like “Many leftists are so bad they almost seem demonic.” Apparently not. Flipping through the book, I found lines like this one: “The mob is satanic and Satan can only destroy.” This occurs in the final chapter, titled, “Lucifer: The Ultimate Mob Boss.” So, you see, the left is mob-like, and mobs are satanic, therefore, you can complete the little syllogism.
On Twitter, I mentioned that lines like the one quoted make it hard for me to take Coulter seriously. (Incidentally, I briefly met Coulter in 2006 when she spoke in Colorado.) Immediately somebody replied that mobs have put innocent heads on pikes, eaten human hearts, and strapped bombs to babies; does that not demonstrate Coulter’s thesis?
My reply is two-fold. First, demonstrating that mobs generally are bad is not the same thing as demonstrating they are satanic. Second, I would point out that, in many cases, mobs have been motivated to expunge what their members thought were satanic forces in their victims. Take, for example, the witch hunts and the Inquisition.
Consider this 2009 headline from the Associated Press: “African Children Denounced As ‘Witches’ By Christian Pastors.” The father of one of the boys allegedly possessed by demons tried to pour acid down his throat, “burning away his face and eyes.” The boy died soon thereafter.
Invocations of alleged satanic activity among one’s enemies prove the perfect motivator for many mobs. And is that not precisely the intended effect of Coulter’s book?
I find it hard to believe that Coulter takes herself seriously when, in aninterview about her book, she excoriates leftists for “their tendency to demonize all those that disagree with them.” Because, you know, we wouldn’t want to demonize the opposition!
But sometimes you just have to laugh at such silliness, which is why this is such a great time to review Dana Carvey’s classic skit, “The Church Lady.”
Central to the plot of the Potter novels is the Horcrux, an object of great evil that manifests the major characteristics of the villains: viciousness toward others, an obsession with physical objects, and a pathological fear of death. I released a short video further explaining the Horcrux:
For a more detailed account, see my book, Values of Harry Potter.
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.
Anonymous July 3, 2010 at 9:19 AM
Regarding argument #3: “It might, then, become a place where potential terrorists meet and hatch their plans.”
From a practical standpoint, doesn’t that make it easier to infiltrate and monitor terrorist groups than at a comparable location that is not on U.S. soil?
Ashley King July 3, 2010 at 3:09 PM
Thank you for this analysis.
A couple of quick responses: regarding #1, I agree that Islam itself cannot be considered a criminal activity. I don’t know where this would be in the law, but Rauf has apparently given $300,000 to the flotilla attacks on Israel. That was to give aid and comfort to Hamas in Gaza. So right there Rauf has gone beyond simply promoting ideas.
Regarding #2, I have no doubt from my reading that this mosque will embolden jihadis specifically. I like your spittle-on-shoe point. We get new attackers here in the US all the time and yet we refuse to put a hammer down on Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even Pakistan. Perhaps we could start a campaign with sympathetic folks, using the mosque for urgency sake, to push for some kind of official Congressional resolution about a threat from Iran.
Regarding #3, I was wondering if there is a similarity to the point someone made on one of the threads that this was like a public nuisance. I brought up the Phelps Baptists wrecking the funerals of our fallen soldiers. I thought there could not be a defensible free speech right to protest at someone’s funeral because that violated the mourners right to peaceful assembly. There is no right to a disruptive nuisance. That ground in New York is a national “cemetery” or sorts. I am saying a mosque would be a nuisance to the families visiting the former WTC, like having a militia movement office near the Oklahoma Federal Building. You are saying, and I agree, that this mosque would be a magnet to killers, especially American jihadis. It would perhaps qualify as a nuisance that way too.
Ari July 5, 2010 at 2:55 PM
Ashley, It would be very useful if people provided links. Where is the evidence that Rauf funded the “flotilla,” and what was the directness of the funding?
As to “nuisance” laws, apart from some instance of concretely disrupting the rights of others, I am exceedingly wary of giving bureaucrats the unbridled power to declare things “nuisances” and therefore banned. I’m quite sure that numerous bureaucrats regard much of what I do as a perpetual nuisance. -Ari
Ashley King July 5, 2010 at 9:10 PM
The link is his check to Perdana; from them to Free Gaza Movement. That last one is linked to Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorists. See the Hotair link.
Regarding nuisance, I thought it might be applicable but you are right about potential abuse. Do you agree though that the Phelps Baptists have no right to distrurb funerals?
Ashley King July 5, 2010 at 9:28 PM
Also, a link to the Phelps Baptist case:
Ari July 5, 2010 at 10:16 PM
Thanks, Ashley. Granted that Rauf’s connection to the “flotilla” is indeed extremely troubling, the New York Post’s article (the main source for the other two links) describes “the indirect ties of the imam to the protesters who confronted Israeli forces.” This feeds into the third argument described above.
I still think you’re off-base with the “nuisance” comparison. The problem with disrupting a funeral is not that it is a “nuisance,” but that it violates people’s rights to freely assemble. I do not see how that compares to Cordoba House. -Ari
ZAC D. August 31, 2010 at 12:14 AM
If it’s not a Mosque then why do they keep bring up freedom of religion and tax exemption? Obviously if it is not a Mosque then freedom of religion and tax exemption does not apply here. Yet it does? Makes no sense. They can fall back on the argument from private property rights if they want to, but no one with intelligence is arguing against that point. I say they have a legal right to build it, but that doesn’t make it right.
eg. If the non-violent KKK (eg. the david dukes) who share a similar ideology as the violent KKK that carried out the bombing on the 16th Street baptist Church announced plans to build a shrine at the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church, would one be supporting their right to build it?
All those christians that conquered this land from the indians and set up churches wasn’t right. Can I change that? I would like to. What I am trying to say is I am suprised that some in this debate think two wrongs make a right. They have no rational ground to stand on with this argument. It’s a hindsight bias fallacy and non sequitur. How can they agree that it should follow that this Radical Muslim (Rauf) should be allowed to do this to the families of 9/11 victims like the Christians did it to the Indians and blacks? Why do they use history so obtusely to promote similar wrongheaded behavior?
Why not use this example from history to promote good prudence instead?
eg. The Catholic Church abandoned the convent at Auschwitz. The church ultimately bowed to concerns that well-meaning nuns served as a hurtful distraction to the memory of the many Jews killed at the camp, despite the fact Catholics also died there.
They didn’t have to do this but it was an act of good purdence to do it.
Do you see nothing wrong with a casino being built on the Gettysburg Battlefield? Not to mention “275 historians including Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson, other national historical preservationists continue to support NoCasino.org in opposing the casino.”
This just another example of ignoring purdence.
ZAC D. August 31, 2010 at 12:15 AM
The argument I make is one from prudence because this mosque is being built at ground zero. This point isn’t even up for debate. I don’t care who’s lied to whom about it. It is a observable fact based on evidence. The landing gear and fuselage came out the north side of the tower and crashed through the roof and two of the floors of the Burlington Coat Factory.
Please look at my links…
Rauf isn’t some Muslim that wants to reform Islam. He’s about creating division. This Mosque isn’t going to bring peace ethier way. He’s even on record saying he wants to replace secular governments with Sharia law…
“In his interview on Hadiyul-Islam by Sa’da Abdul Maksoud, Abdul Rauf was asked his views on Sharia (Islamic religious law) and the Islamic state. He responded:
“Throughout my discussions with contemporary Muslim theologians, it is clear an Islamic state can be established in more than just a single form or mold. It can be established through a kingdom or a democracy. The important issue is to establish the general fundamentals of Sharia that are required to govern. It is known that there are sets of standards that are accepted by [Muslim] scholars to organize the relationships between government and the governed.”
When questioned about this, Abdul Rauf continued: “Current governments are unjust and do not follow Islamic laws.” He added:
“New laws were permitted after the death of Muhammad, so long of course that these laws do not contradict the Quran or the Deeds of Muhammad … so they create institutions that assure no conflicts with Sharia. [emphasis in translation]”
Rauf is not only a double talker but he has been involved in bad stuff as well. (read the links below). He sounds no different than Osama bin laden. As an atheist-objectivist I just don’t trust his motives one bit. I realize none of this means he can’t still legally build it there, but I also understand as a sensible atheist-objectivist I don’t have to pimp his cause like some are doing. I also have a ethical obligation to protest it based on bad purdence.