On Terry Jones and Burn a Quran Day
September 10, 2010

I have a new Salon column up about the maybe-canceled-maybe-not Burn a Quran Day:

 

Pastor Terry Jones might not be an expert in theology, politics or basic human decency, but he more than compensates with media savvy. He can wring every last drop of press attention out of even a retreat, as he demonstrated last night when he announced the cancellation of Burn a Quran Day and then, not four hours later, issued a semi-retraction, claiming that he’d been misled (those sneaky Muslims!) and suggesting he might still burn some Qurans after all.

As I write this, the fate of Burn a Quran Day is still up in the air, but my guess is it probably won’t happen. Instead, Jones will soak up another news cycle or so of sweet, sweet infamy, before publicly declaring that he’s holding off “out of respect for the troops,” whom his actions could endanger. The career Muslim-haters who previously called him out for going just a teensy bit too far will thank him profusely, leaving open the door to future friendship, interviews and well-paying speaking engagements.

But even if my prediction turns out to be completely wrong, the leaders of the right-wing’s anti-Muslim brigade nonetheless owe this man a fruit basket. He may not have sparked the recent explosion of Islamophobia, but he’s done as much as just about anyone to drag it into the mainstream.

 

The rest is here.

Nobody’s Saying Muslims Don’t Have the Right to Build a Mosque Near Ground Zero
August 19, 2010

Except, that is, for half of everybody.

There’s a lot to pick apart in this poll—for example, you could point out that whether or not Muslims have the legal right to build a Mosque near Ground Zero has nothing to do with current plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center. But I think the more salient point is regarding what this says about how a lot of Americans view constitutional issues.

There is no debate to be had over whether or not Imam Rauf and co. have a constitutional right to build Park51. They do. It is empirically, demonstrably true that they do.

It is not empirically true that they have a right in the moral or metaphysical sense to build Park51, because that is not the sort of thing that can be empirically verified. (Metaethical naturalists might argue that it can be empirically proven, to which I verified: Then do so.) That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong to say that they have the right. I believe they do, and I would hope that the vast majority of people who live in a liberal democratic society and also believe that rights exist in the first place would agree with me. But giving a proof of that gets into some thorny, potentially unanswerable ethical questions, whereas a proof answering the constitutional question would be irrefutable and consist of one step, which reads: “Read the goddamn document.”

My point being that if you think that Park51 doesn’t have a constitutional right to exist, then you really have no idea what the constitutional angle is on this. In which case, the only way you can give an answer besides “I don’t know” is by substituting your own moral intuitions for the actual letter of the law.

This is the sort of widespread backwards thinking on legal issues that the Onion lampooned brilliantly awhile back. And if you want another example from today’s news, check out Laura Schlessinger complaining that private individuals and companies violate her first amendment rights when they aren’t sufficiently indulgent of her racist tirades.

(Aside: I know it’s way too easy to pick on Sarah Palin, but compare her full-throated defense of Schlessinger to her previous well-documented condemnations of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Evidently when brown people construct benign outreach centers too close to the sites of national tragedies it shows an unfortunate lack of sensitivity, but when a white person spouts racial epithets on a popular radio program she’s just exercising her rights and anyone who takes issue with that needs to man up.)

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France’s Perennial Burka Ban Legislation
July 6, 2010

Burqa
Image by CharlesFred via Flickr

It appears that it is up for debate again.

This smells like a pretty transparent bit of Muslim-baiting in a country known for its antagonistic relationship with its Arab immigrants. But a friend of mine, in private conversation, noted that there is an ostensibly feminist argument to be made for the ban. Burkas can be, after all, a tool of oppression.

This is the position favored by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who calls the burka, “contrary to the dignity of women.” But I’m not so sure the argument flies, at least in a liberal democratic society.

The problem is that while the burka is frequently—and, in France, maybe even usually—forced onto the wearer by a family member, it is not impossible to conceive of a woman voluntarily donning such a garment as an expression of her faith. Legislation banning such expression, when it does no direct harm to others, is incompatible with liberal democratic principles.

So maybe the trick is to target the family members who coerce women into wearing burkas, and leave women wearing them voluntarily alone. That’s not what the legislation does—in fact, even in obvious cases of coercion, the victim is punished along with the perpetrator—but let’s try this new and improved law out for the sake of argument. The problem then comes from the impossibility of proving coercion. If you come across someone literally forcing a woman into a burka, there are presumably other laws under which that person can be charged. Anything less and the case is, at best, founded on hearsay. At worst, you get into horribly vague arguments about the nature of coercion and what kinds of psychological and institutional pressure count as something stronger than mere persuasion.

More to the point, outlawing its most obvious outward signifiers isn’t a particularly effective way of combating abuse. I’m not sure what this actually does for women in France beyond denying them one possible avenue of self-expression. Abuse spouses and family members have plenty of other ways of being equally abusive. And given that a near-negligible percentage of Muslim women in France wear burkas in the first place, it seems the primary consequence of passing this legislation would be the needless antagonization of France’s Arab population.

Which, as I said earlier, seems to be sort of the point.

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