The response to the Park 51 Cordoba House (more commonly known, erroneously, as the “Ground Zero Mosque") has been less than edifying. News organizations, chief among them Fox news, has stoked fear that the center is a bridgehead for jihadism within the United States. Meanwhile, the political establishment in both political parties has been mostly unable to take a stand for the principle of freedom of religion. Barack Obama voiced his support of the right to build, though he later added that he would not comment on the “wisdom” of doing so. Most Democratic politicians have showed even less political courage, usually skipping or only briefly touching on the right of the builders to continue the project and concentrating on how the project is “offensive.” Republican leaders have been worse, either openly fanning the flames of the controversy (as Newt Gingrich did when he compared constructing the Mosque to displaying "putting up a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum").
One of the least edifying parts of the controversy, though, has been the reaction of the opinion makers and organizations in the humanist community. One would think that it would be perfectly obvious to American humanists and atheists that if our nation began to have second thoughts about freedom of religion, such reservations would doubtless go doubly for freedom from religion. Instead, CFI initially issued a press release stating that the Mosque ought not be built because no religious establishments ought to be built near "Ground Zero", an odd and overstated position (PZ Myers endorsed a more extreme version of this, hopefully with tongue planted in cheek). Though the CFI quickly issued a press release walking-back this position, the fact that the first one was issued at all ought to be an embarrassment for the organization.
Humanists ought to be the first to condemn a campaign to demonize a national out-group. Were it any other out-group, this would doubtless be the case, but Muslims are different. Mostly, the Mosque controversy has been used to raise yet another chance for atheist authors to worry about the growing danger of Islam. Sam Harris clears his throat by he supports the legal right to build the Cordoba House, then launch into a somewhat argument as to why its construction Islam is a particularly insidious religion, and concludes, somewhat unconvincingly, that "the erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory — and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice... American Muslims should be absolutely free to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero; but the ones who should do it probably wouldn’t want to." This is an odd conclusion. I can't understand why Harris is convinced that this will be welcomed as a sign of American decadence and cowardice in the Muslim world. Jerry Coyne agrees with Harris, saying “It was Islam, after all, that propelled those planes into the World Trade Center nine years ago.” The most extreme example of this is Pat Condell's paranoid ranting, which went even farther than Gingrich compared Muslims to Nazis.
One of the most notable things about Harris, Coyne and Myers is that they hardly even mention the bigotry and anti-Muslim bias. Indeed, most surprisingly, the only big name “New Atheist” to denounce this parade of bigotry which has led Americans to oppose not just this community center, but Mosques throughout America, is Christopher Hitchens (younger atheists such as Jennifer McCreight and Hemat Mehta also have condemned the rising intolerance), a man who one can hardly count upon to be on the right side of any issue. Hitchens shows how it's done:
The dispute over the construction of an Islamic center at "Ground Zero" in Lower Manhattan has now sunk to a level of stupidity that really does shame the memory and the victims of that terrible day in September 2001. One might think that a mosque or madrassa was being proposed in the place of the fallen towers themselves or atop the atomized ingredients of what was once a mass grave. (In point of fact, the best we have been able to do with the actual site, after almost a decade, is to create a huge, noisy, and dirty pit with almost no visible architectural progress. Perhaps resentment at the relative speed of the proposed Cordoba House is a subconscious by-product of embarrassment at this local and national disgrace.)It ought to be said: it is not “Islamophobia” to point out the cruelty of Islamic cultures confining women to a subordinate role and visiting capital punishment upon gays and apostates. Theocracy is a cruel thing. In Iran, where the government has recently suppressed the opposition with torture, murder rape and Stalinist-style show-trials, a rigid Islamic law is upheld which includes the death penalty for sodomy and apostasy. Saudi Arabia, a key United States ally in the region, practices if anything an even stricter form of Islamic law. This cannot just be blamed solely on reactionary regimes, often it is the citizens themselves who enforce these cruel Islamic cultural codes. It’s worth noting that 75% of Pakistanis support the death penalty for apostasy, so that if someone is even accused of such a crime they will likely be murdered by a fellow citizen before a verdict is even given by the government. The fact that Islamic moderates are often in denial about their religion and often won’t denounce sufficiently outrages such as the fatwa against Salman Rushdie is indeed a serious matter. Hitchens points out that even Imam Rauf has a less than perfect record on these issues (it should be noted, however, the Rauf has condemned violence and much that is unsavory in traditional Islam, even worked with the FBI to fight extremism). Yet, these might be important, but they are far from the beating heart of the matter. The important thing about this controversy is what it says about us. Freedom is a key value for of this nation, and the freedom to practice one’s religion ought to be reflected. Even if we don’t agree with moderate Islam, we ought not to confuse them with the warped cult that is Al Qaeda.