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Western Culture and the Mosque

Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes a profound point at the Wall Street Journal today: that the Park 51 mosque controversy, although framed in most of our public discussions as a narrow question of religious tolerance, is actually a battleground in the broader “clash of civilizations” outlined by Samuel Huntington. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal. I would approach her point with the following framework: that the central question for New Yorkers, as for Americans and the West, is what religious tolerance means at the border between civilizations.

The West has had real trouble answering this question. What we are finding is that the default attitudes of the 20th century are inadequate to preserving a sustainable balance of religious and other philosophical influences in communal life. Western Christians and Jews have grown complacent about the protection of their religious freedoms in an increasingly secular culture. Indeed, our society has grown complacent about all freedom of conscience, routinely ignoring the dangers posed by the assaults of absolutist ideologies and our flirtations with creating thought crimes.

As Ali points out, however, “Our civilization is not indestructible. It needs to be actively defended.” She is right. The question for the West is how to tolerate Islam – which is culturally prescriptive and preemptive to a greater degree than either of the major Western religions – and yet retain what matters in our civilization.

I wrote last week about the differing levels of zeal for “religious rights” displayed by the New York City authorities in their approach to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious arrangements. Their unaccommodating posture with Christians and Jews is emblematic of a steadily more reflexive prejudice in our American civic consciousness (and in the letter of our law as well). This imbalance of favor has consequences – and not just for religion but also for intellectual freedom of all kinds.

But taking the long view, we must see that addressing this problem solely with the blunt instruments of majoritarian politics and demagogic suasion is not enough.  We need to reexamine some of our modern attitudes. Certainly, we ought to elect new public officials who are wiser about respecting the competing claims of the people. But the issue is deeper than that. Sharing the public square is fundamental for Western civilization; for Islam, it is not. The reactionary political debate over the Park 51 mosque will leave us without the thing we need most of all: a way to live with Islam, one in which Islam accommodates our culture even as we seek to be respectful of Islam.

We won’t get to that solution by continuing on the path of lazy complacency about the survival of our culture. Europe shows us where that path leads: to urban neighborhoods where women aren’t safe unveiled and Jews aren’t safe at all. Muslims have demonstrated that they can live peacefully in the culture of the West, but where Islam rules the culture, the freedoms that we prize disappear. The truth is that we must privilege and defend our practices if we want to keep our freedoms. One such practice – one to which Christians and Jews have regularly been subjected, along with Wal-Mart, shopping malls, and adult video stores – is the veto of local majorities over their plans for construction and operation on specific sites.

Rights and cultural conditions don’t defend themselves:  we have to teach them to our children and be vigilant about their application and privilege. We have nothing to apologize for in doing that. And it’s essential to establish that our purpose is not to defeat or drive out Islam, but to live with it. Perhaps the outcome in the case at hand will be the Park 51 mosque. But we have been very clear that living with Christianity and Judaism does not mean that the public must accommodate everything their faithful want to do – nor does it mean driving them out of civic life. It means, rather, respect and compromise from everyone. Those are the club rules.


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