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Tuesday, August 17, 2010  

Putting the "Ill" Back in "Illiberal"

Fresh off a good run of kicking up the blogospheric chalk by arguing that American elite universities don't adequately represent the country's less liberal elements, and then arguing that liberal conceptions of rights were not adequate to capturing the special thick meaning of heterosexual unions and thus must be limited so as to exclude gay people, we all waited with bated breath to see what argument Ross Douthat would make for his inevitable, if soberly even-handed, endorsement of the Mosque Exclusion Zone.

Envelope please:

Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale. Too often, American Muslim leaders strike ambiguous notes when asked to disassociate themselves completely from illiberal causes.

And the Rossie goes to "illiberal causes!" Or more specifically, to "ambiguous notes" in reference to "illiberal causes." I am honestly surprised that a writer with Ross's passing capacity for self-examination was able to put these words down. The American Right in its modern form is nothing but a parade of illiberal causes. From celebrating torture, indefinite detention, and extrajudicial killings to trashing human rights groups to trying to keep women from getting legal medicine, the whole movement of which Ross is a part--and from which he dissents in no substantive point that I have seen--is devoted to the idea that liberal principles and freedoms must be rolled back. Ross's great contribution to our national discourse--and I mean this with at least a jigger of seriousness--is to introduce "ambiguous notes" into this wearying national argument for less moral sensitivity and humanitarian scruple. But to say that Ross has disassociated himself at all, much less completely, from any of the swirling illiberalisms of this squalid little period in our national life would be a gross exaggeration.

And yet even this very, very bad argument could have been elevated by any articulation of what precisely Feisal Abdul Rauf, or any other Muslim or group of Muslims, must do in order to earn the protections of the Constitution. Here are Douthat's diagnoses:

The second [liberal? or illiberal? anyway, the nativist one] America begs to differ. It sees the project as an affront to the memory of 9/11, and a sign of disrespect for the values of a country where Islam has only recently become part of the public consciousness.

See, Muslims, you must be part of the public consciousness for a while longer before your rights are granted. How much longer? We don't know, but longer than you have been so far.

But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.

How about helping the FBI with counterterrorism? Putting Christians and Jews on the project board? Nope. More needed. How much more? We'll tell you when you get there.

For Muslim Americans to integrate fully into our national life, they’ll need leaders who don’t describe America as “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 (as Rauf did shortly after the 2001 attacks), or duck questions about whether groups like Hamas count as terrorist organizations (as Rauf did in a radio interview in June).

The first requirement above is that, in order to have any rights, Muslims must--in the past!--avoid voicing any politically incorrect interpretations of the September 11 attacks. This is unfortunately a common sentiment in our national life, but it is not one used to interfere with the rights of any other group. As for the second, perhaps Douthat could provide a list of approved opinions and terminology for Muslims to use when they're on the radio.

And they’ll need leaders whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for inter-religious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.

One is genuinely curious to hear a full list of which people and words and opinions must be repudiated, and exactly how far a Muslim-use building must be from the WTC site. But of course Ross won't provide such things, and there will always be more repudiations to exact and more radii to debate. You condemn terrorism, but not with enough self-criticism. You are not violent nor do you condone violence, but you do not repudiate non-violent people who don't always repudiate violent people. How, after all, does one disprove accusations of secret motives? How can any of us establish not only past and present but future innocence, as Charles Krauthammer would like to see?

Throughout our nation's history, marginalized groups have asked in earnest, "What must we do to be counted Americans?" And throughout our nation's history, there have been people like Douthat to say not "This or that," but always "More." This is not a cost-free delinquency, even for us white folks who can be as illiberal as we want to be and still have national cable shows, much less community centers on land we have purchased. America's cities burned for years--decades, really--because white America would not give black America a straight answer to that question. We are really without excuse when people, tired of always hearing "we'll tell you when you get there," decide to stop asking in earnest. That's when trouble really starts.

I wonder if Ross, and the other ambiguously illiberal-liberals, have really thought through the implications of encouraging this horrifying bill of attainder-by-mob-rule. If a firestorm of idiocy and demagoguery--comparing a mosque to Nazi shrines and demands for Saudi-style restrictions on mosques--kills this project, how likely is a new leader to arise aiming to meet Douthat's unstated but obviously very exacting standards for Muslim liberalism? What lesson would a reasonable American Muslim be likely to draw from this episode? Will this--yes, even the words of the reasonable conservative at the paper of record--cultivate faith in the grandeur and impartiality of our laws? Will this show forth our commitment to religious liberty, or expose it as a sham invoked to protect the powerful and popular? Will this give evidence that America is a place where Islam may peacefully flourish, or that we are a country deeply and implacably hostile to it?

I am hardly in a position to say. Perhaps Ross, tribune of those alienated by America's all-devouring liberalism, might have had some perspective that we as a country very sorely need.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:11 PM
Wouldn't embracing the current proposed location of the mosque be a sterling blow to radical Islam? It'd be like America was saying "not only are we no longer upset at the terrorist act you perpetrated, but we actually embrace your religion to the point that we want to integrate it into our National dialogue. We want that so bad that we'll let an Islamic center go up right by where you tried to strike a blow for Islam." Wouldn't that be an incredibly satisfying, AMERICAN response to terrorists?
My feelings exactly. When your sister and I went to the local mosque for the iftar last year and saw all the Republican politicians stumping for Muslim votes and trying their best to eat keftah, I was like "see you jihadist freaks, this is why we are awesome and this is why WE WILL WIN." It makes me love America. This whole orgy makes me ill.
Not to lower the level of dialog here, but I'm still waiting for the Former House Speaker to take up my illiberal cause: do you know there are approximately 40 churches within one mile of the Murrah Federal Building site? How could we have let that happen??!? Where were the cable news shows when the OKC zoning board made that insensitive/municipal decision? That's like putting 40 lit Bunsen burners next to the field where the Hindenburg blew up.
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