Certain extremists, with the help of the media, have created a controversy over plans to expand a Moslem community center a couple of blocks from the former World Trade Center. Although these groups are unabashedly Islamophobic, a large part of their argument is that building an Islamic center that may be partially visible from a few locations on the upper floors of the commercial buildings that may be built on the “hallowed ground” of the 9/11 site will be offensive to some people. It is claimed that the proponents are being insensitive to the feelings of the families of the 9/11 victims and Americans in general. There is a reason this argument resonates with a large numbers of political pundits, the media, and the population as a whole (70% of Americans oppose the project).
There is an increasingly contentious debate about how far society and individuals can or should go in regulating speech and behavior that is deemed “offensive” by some group. Fatwas against authors, violent attacks on cartoonists, laws against head coverings, laws against holocaust denial, and demonstrators at military funerals have all forced upon us a public debate about to what extent, if any, do people have a right to restrict acts they find offensive. A surprising number of people, across the political spectrum, believe that speech should be restricted if it might hurt someone’s feelings. I, and others, believe that no one should be silenced because others are offended by what they say or do.
The later half of the century saw an explosion in “Conspiracy Theories”. By distorting and filtering facts and torturing logic and reason, a core of rabid believers could be created for any idea, no matter how absurd. The government is covering up the truth about UFOs, JFK’s assassination, and Elvis’ death, don’t cha know. Certain Christian and Islamic fundamentalists began promoting the idea that the Holocaust never happened, that it was a made up story by the Jews to take over the world. The Holocaust deniers published books to support their fantasies. They made speeches and gained supporters. Their denials understandably offended many people. Ultimately laws were passed throughout Europe making it a crime to publish or make public speeches promoting the denialist claims. These laws are an affront to the concept of freedom of speech, and they play into the hands of religious fundamentalists.
When Salomon Rushdie published his fictional work “Satanic Verses”, some Moslem clerics were so outraged that they issued a fatwa calling for his death. This sent Rushdie into hiding and greatly increased sales of a mediocre work. It offended some Moslems because he dared to discuss the the Koranic verses that cause so many problems for the Moslem apologists (the ones where Mohamed appears to be channeling the devil, not Gabriel). Incredibly, many people in the West criticized Rushdie for going too far and offending Moslem sensibilities, rather than staunchly defending free speech and freedom of expression. Moslems point to the European laws against holocaust denial to support their outlawing of Rushdie’s fictional work.
When Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published a cartoon showing Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban the Islamic world was worked into a frenzy of offense by a few clerics (who lied and manipulated the crowds by including drawings they made up in the list of allegedly offensive publications). Their outrage caused the cartoons to be far more widely circulated. Many people were killed in the riots that followed. Many western news outlets, including Fox news, cowardly refused to republish the offending cartoon because they didn’t want to offend Moslem sensibilities.
In 2004 filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death following a fatwa against him because he produced a film ("Submission") critical of the Islamic treatment of women. Since that time the publishing of numerous books and articles about Islam have been cancelled or delayed because the publishers were threatened by groups claiming the work was offensive. Authors have been arrested and beaten. The western press, including Fox, have either not reacted to this outrageous suppression of freedom or supported it in the interest of avoiding offense.
Now we have an Islamic group preparing to build an Islamic community center two blocks from the 9/11 site. It may be partially visible from the new buildings at the 9/11 site once they are completed. Some people find this offensive, and islamophobe Pamela Geller has been exploiting feelings about 9/11 to generate opposition to the Islamic center. Yet the proponents have refused to validate that offense by changing their plans. It is understandable that all those groups and individuals who have kowtowed to Islamic sensibility over the past dozen years are now upset because the Moslems refuse to reciprocate. The refusal to yield to their offended feelings is, I am sure, what infuriates the center’s opponents the most.
Perhaps now they understand that it is very bad policy to have speech and actions limited by any group’s emotional reactions. People do not have a right to not be offended by someone else’s speech (or dress, or activities). This is be a virtually impossible goal since someone is bound to be offended by almost anything. Many atheists, for example, are offended by public display of crosses. Does that mean they should be banned in public? Of course not.
If the accomodationists want to match the radical Islamists for intolerance, they could respond to the proposed Islamic Center by making veiled threats about “2nd amendment” solutions and picketing at the site carrying pictures of Timothy McVeigh.
Here’s how I would respond: Erect a billboard (or paint a mural on the side of a building) in full view of the center, and between the center and the 9/11 site, with Kurt Westergaard's cartoon of Mohamed on it. It would be a great lesson in tolerance for everyone. Maybe some of those organizations that opted for accommodation in the past would help support it…