About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mosque at Ground Zero: Hitchens 1 - Coyne & Harris 0

By Massimo Pigliucci
Well, three of the New Atheists have now spoken on the “issue” of the “mosque” “at” Ground Zero.” (In case you are wondering, the quotation marks are there because this really ought to be an non-issue, it ain’t a mosque, and it’s not at Ground Zero. But anyway.) Hitchens is in favor, Coyne and Harris don’t think it’s a good idea, though they seem to express different degrees of discomfort, with Harris’s being stronger than Coyne’s.
Coyne and Harris fans fear not, this isn’t yet another post where I chide their heros for not knowing their philosophy. And of course this is the sort of thing where disagreement, as Coyne puts it, shows that atheists “by no means march in intellectual lockstep” — though I doubt any additional evidence of that fact was actually necessary to make the point (you know the old adage about organizing free-thinkers being like herding cats).
Okay, so Hitchens has said that banning the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan is a bad idea for two reasons. First, it would be a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. Second, it would be an action that “borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail.” That is, banning the center is one (more) step toward the kind of closed society Bin Laden and his thugs actually want to establish.
Not so, says Harris. In his opinion, “honest reasoning declares that there is much that is objectionable — and, frankly, terrifying — about the religion of Islam.” He continues: “Anyone who elides these distinctions [among Islam, Judaism and Christianity], or who acknowledges the problem of jihad and Muslim terrorism only to swiftly mention the Crusades, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the Tamil Tigers, and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, is simply not thinking honestly about the problem of Islam,” concluding 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.”
What about Coyne? Along with Harris, he doesn’t “see much evidence of the friendlier, kinder Islam touted by accommodationists” and while acknowledging that it would be wrong to prohibit the building of the cultural center, he states that “it’s no better an idea than would be building an American cultural center near Ground Zero in Hiroshima. It was Islam, after all, that propelled those planes into the World Trade Center nine years ago.”
Now for my take. In this case, I pretty much completely agree with Hitchens’ view (which is not always the case, I still think he was nuts endorsing the Bush-II administration invasion of Iraq, and that he is smart enough to have known better than to so easily buy into neocon after-9/11 propaganda). Like Harris, I do find plenty of objectionable, and yes even terrifying, things about Islam. But I object to and am terrified just as much by the other two Abrahamic religions.
Harris says — without argument or evidence — that people who bring up the Crusades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc. “do not think honestly.” I think what is really dishonest is to accuse people of intellectual dishonesty on the mere ground that they disagree with you. Yes, the Crusades happened centuries ago, but nothing like that is possible for Christianity today because it no longer has temporal power and armies at its disposal, not because the religion is intrinsically kinder. And the Israelis are committing systematic atrocities against the Palestinians as we speak (who, in turn, keep committing acts of violence against Israeli civilians), and those atrocities are incited and justified by orthodox Judaism.
More crucially, Harris is missing the really broad picture. If you mention 9/11 to most South Americans their thoughts will likely go to September 11, 1973, when the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende was overturned and Allende assassinated — with American support — resulting in the establishment of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, responsible for thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of cases of unlawful imprisonment and torture. By Harris’ reasoning, then, the United States is an international terror state, and maintaining an embassy in Chile ought to be considered an affront to the dead of that country. If the latter suggestion seems preposterous to you, ask yourself what exactly is the difference with what Harris and Coyne are saying.
Coyne doesn’t see much evidence of moderate Islam. Obviously, he hasn’t looked hard enough. Has he considered, for instance, the entire country of Turkey, one of the best examples (albeit far from perfect) of how a predominant Muslim society can live in a secular fashion? Or how about the largest Islamic country in the world, Indonesia? After they got rid of the (US-backed) Suharto dictatorship, they have quickly evolved into a democracy with many peaceful ties to the West.
And Coyne’s comment that building a cultural center in Lower Manhattan is akin to building an American center in Hiroshima is both inaccurate and grossly misses the point. First, the Peace Monuments in Hiroshima web site lists nine monuments sponsored or co-sponsored by the United States. I guess the Japanese are more tolerant than we are (and they lost a lot more people to the bomb than we did in 9/11). Second, and most importantly, Coyne and Harris make the same mistake that Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich make (and I don’t mean the comparison to be flattering): Hiroshima (or the Nazis, in the case of Palin-Gingrich) was a case of a nation state bombing innocent civilians. 9/11 was caused by a (well organized) small band of true nutcases, no different in nature from domestic terrorists a la Timothy McVeigh or Scott Roeder (the miscreant who killed Dr. George Tiller) — Harris’s accusations of intellectual dishonesty notwithstanding.
All the historical and cultural caveats aside, I find it disturbing that atheists are even having this discussion at all. Hitchens is absolutely on the mark here, and it should make us feel more than queasy to find ourselves suddenly making statements that sound very much like those uttered by the most intolerant conservative voices in this country. Yes, none of us likes religion, of any sort. And a very good argument can be made that there are more than enough “places of worship” of any kind, everywhere in the world. But that’s another discussion. In the words of a leading freethinker, Voltaire, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Amen to that.

55 comments:

  1. "...and am terrified just as much by the other two Abrahamic religions."

    Really? I find that hard to believe. I think you are unwilling to specifically going after Islam. Fear and political correctness in a bad tasting cocktail.
    With the rest I agree.

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  2. Nevermind that protests against Park 51 were kickstarted by the insane, hysterical shrieking madwoman of Atlas Shrugs, Pamela Geller. A woman so blinded by paranoid, conspiratorial hatred that she has believed Obama to be the illigitimate child of Malcolm X and has suggested Obama is having people killed to protect the secret of his forged birth certificate. She is a first class kook (she calls CNN the "Crescent News Network" and in July of 2009 said that Obama is "literally" paving the way for an Islamic takeover of America), but worse, bigot who hates Muslims so much that she is a fan of European crypto-fascists like Vlaams Belang.

    Salon's War Room has a good timeline of her smear campaign against Park 51 (google "salon pamela geller timeline" ... darn you iPad and your inability to paste to comments), noting how what had been a non-controversial non-issue became a wedge issue for Republicans after the Murdoch owned New York Post repeated her deranged rants against the center.

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  3. Not so, says Harris

    That's pretty dishonest. Like Hitchens, Harris does not support a ban. As that's the key bit of stupidity everyone is talking about, it's simply not true to say that Harris would say "not so" to Hitchens. In fact, when interviewed with Reza Azlan (sp?), he repeatedly said that he supports religious freedoms and does not support banning any religious building.

    They've got minor differences but to paint this as a big fight on principles is silly but to go further and say that the others substantially disagree with him is even worse.

    It's not easy to misrepresent their views when they're so clear & outspoken but congrats, you've done it again.

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  4. You write, "Yes, the Crusades happened centuries ago, but nothing like that is possible for Christianity today because it no longer has temporal power and armies at its disposal, not because the religion is intrinsically kinder." True enough, but that implies that religions with temporal power are capable of doing many nasty things!

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  5. I'd rather listen to Muslims and ex-Muslims than to ignorant New Atheists.

    Tawfik Hamid, an Egyptian scholar and reformer who said he was once a member of a terrorist group, said he had a 'conditional objection' to the proposed Islamic center.
    He said it was not enough for Park51 leaders to call themselves moderate. Instead, they should 'clearly and unambiguously' reject radicalization by opposing specific extremist practices, such as killing apostates, stoning women for adultery, calling Jews 'pigs and monkeys' and 'declaring war' on non-Muslims who refuse to convert.
    "This, in my view, will be perceived by radicals in Islam as a defeat for their ideology," said Hamid, senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "They think in a very primitive way. If they see a mosque near ground zero, this would certainly be perceived as a sign of victory for al-Qaeda. In the end, they will think, `They are bowing to us.'"

    Asra Nomani, author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," said she backs the idea of the mosque in principle but believes the feelings of families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks should trump the plan.
    Nomani said American Muslims have not fully confronted extremism in Islam, which makes her worried that any mosque has the potential to become a haven for those with rigid views.

    Neda Bolourchi, the daughter of a Muslim 9/11 victim, wrote, "Though I have nothing but contempt for the fanaticism that propelled the terrorists to carry out their murderous attacks on Sept. 11, I still have great respect for the faith. Yet, I worry that the construction of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site would not promote tolerance or understanding; I fear it would become a symbol of victory for militant Muslims around the world...
    A mosque near Ground Zero will not move this conversation forward. There were many mosques in the United States before Sept. 11; their mere existence did not bring cross-cultural understanding. The proposed center in New York may be heralded as a peace offering -- may genuinely seek to focus on 'promoting integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture,' as its Web site declares -- but I fear that over time, it will cultivate a fundamentalist version of the Muslim faith, embracing those who share such beliefs and hating those who do not."

    But surely Muslim extremists oppose a moderate mosque.

    "We have to build everywhere," said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas and the organization's chief on the Gaza Strip.
    "In every area we have, [as] Muslim[s], we have to pray, and this mosque is the only site of prayer," he said.

    P.S. Turkey is a great example of moderate Islam?
    "Turkey under Erdogan has always pursued an Islamist agenda." -Ibn Warraq
    http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/why_did_turkey_turn_its_back_on_the_west/

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  6. Tyro, I'm getting a bit tired of being accused of intellectual dishonesty every time I have a disagreement with one of the new atheists (even as I agree with another one!). Even Coyne can see that there is a distinction between Hitchens and Harris on this. Why can't we bypass the knee-jerk reactions and talk about the issues?

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  7. ADL's Abraham Foxman gave the following analogy.

    "The lessons of an earlier and different controversy echo in this one. In 1993, Pope John Paul II asked 14 Carmelite Nuns to move their convent from just outside the Auschwitz death camp. The establishment of the convent near Auschwitz had stirred dismay among Jewish groups and survivors who felt that the location was an affront and a terrible disservice to the memory of millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust.
    Just as we thought then that well-meaning efforts by Carmelite nuns to build a Catholic structure were insensitive and counterproductive to reconciliation, so too we believe it will be with building a mosque so close to Ground Zero."

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  8. I'm confused. The article you linked previously said it's not a mosque but an Islamic cultural center. Other articles stated that it's a mosque. But there are also articles that say that it's both an Islamic cultural center AND a mosque.

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  9. Hey, if the radical nut jobs (the Muslims, not Palin & Co.)see it as victory, then fine. Go on home, enjoy it, polish your trophy every night, and STOP TRYING TO KILL US!

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  10. I'll have to second Hitchens on this one as well. The `it's treading on feelings!' line here strikes me as profoundly creepy.

    As for Harris, I don't like his shift from "Islam is bad" to "some (any?) Islamic presence is bad". It's moving from ideas to people, precisely the sort of shift which actually earns the (yes, usually stupidly and misleadingly employed) "Islamophobe" label. (I bring it up quite deliberately for very obvious reasons.) One has to make the intermediate steps in reason carefully, and Harris failed to do this.

    IMO, the "Ground Zero" mosque can only reasonably be argued against on the same grounds that any mosque can be argued against. One can dodge the first amendment issues by saying "well, you have a right to build it and I defend that, but I still do not think that you should build it because Islam is wrong." So what? Why should this be persuasive to a Muslim? Imagine this from the planners and investors: "ah, we forgot that much of Islam is contemptible. We're off to build a library now."

    Let's try "I still do not think you should build it because it offends somebody."

    I do not think that Harris can defend such a statement. What could he be saying?

    Harris could have argued that building a mosque there is not praiseworthy and does not constitute some great and persuasive symbol of Western toleration. I would agree to this. Instead, he brings up objections like "the terrorists would criticize our values for it!" Lots of silliness here. When are the terrorists going to greet our actions with a "Good job on this one, America!"? What possible relevance does this have? Wouldn't preventing the building of the mosque prove that we are anti-Islamic imperialist hypocritical etcs that we are also supposed to be? How are we supposed to win their approval?

    I think that Harris's usage of `reasons' such as these shows that he is grasping here.

    On Coyne and "moderate Islam", I agree that by liberally-minded standards of what constitutes "moderate", the overwhelming majority of Muslims simply do not qualify. This is important, and I think that we should emphasize this against the dishonest tactic of pointing to `moderates' in defense of Islam. But at the same time, statements like "It was Islam, after all, that propelled those planes into the World Trade Center nine years ago" hardly constitute a case against building the mosque. Even if we would not consider the backers to be "moderate", they are apparently not jihadists. Whether or not we can blame Islam for 9/11 is a separate question from whether or not we can blame any particular group of Muslims or else use the event to alter their behavior. This does, to me, qualify as Islamophobic in that it treats Muslims as a homogeneous group and judges Muslims based on the behavior of other Muslims. Yes, Islam can be said to justify Jihadism (and I think it does),

    Yes, I use the term polemically. I hate it too.

    Building an American cultural center is different from building a structure dedicated to how cool mushroom clouds are.

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  11. "Neda Bolourchi, the daughter of a Muslim 9/11 victim, wrote, "Though I have nothing but contempt for the fanaticism that propelled the terrorists to carry out their murderous attacks on Sept. 11, I still have great respect for the faith."

    What aspect of Islam does she have respect for? The call to murder all non-believers? The desire and attempts to make Sharia the law of everywhere? The groups who want to murder every Jew just as Nazi Germany tried to do? I see nothing to show respect for, and in fact there is much more to have contempt for within Islam that within Christianity, Judaism and others.

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  12. The US could build monuments and churches in Hiroshima because the US won the war. I'm sure that many Japanese thought it was insensitive.

    But check out this 1984 article about Shinto shrines near Pearl Harbor.
    http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1437

    "General Douglas MacArthur was in a quandary. Though he believed firmly in the freedom of religion, he saw the hold that fanatical Shintoism had on the Japanese mind. He pondered the matter for weeks; the solution finally came in the Allied Directive of December 15, 1945. Shinto was to be completely disestablished: it could not be taught in Japan’s public schools, state funding would be eliminated, and the emperor would be persuaded to denounce his divinity (to “de-god” himself, as the GIs called it). On January 1, 1946, Emperor Hirohito shocked Japan with a radio announcement -- broadcast repeatedly, so there could be no misunderstanding -- stating that it was a mistake to think of him as a descendant of the gods or that the Japanese were a superior people..."

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  13. Bill,

    If radical Muslims see that violence brings victory, then they'll only be encouraged to try to kill you!
    Their ultimate goal is for Islam to be the dominant religion. They're absolutely convinced that this will happen.

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  14. You have so much illogical thought in this post I would have to write a post of equal size to counter it. Comparing Peace Monuments
    in Hiroshima to this cultural center/mosque and saying the Japs must be more tolerant than Americans as a result would just be the start of a long list of whats wrong with this post. Its not even close.

    If you mention 9/11 to most South Americans their thoughts will likely go to September 11, 1973, when the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende was overturned and Allende assassinated — with American support — resulting in the establishment of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, responsible for thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of cases of unlawful imprisonment and torture. By Harris’ reasoning, then, the United States is an international terror state, and maintaining an embassy in Chile ought to be considered an affront to the dead of that country. If the latter suggestion seems preposterous to you, ask yourself what exactly is the difference with what Harris and Coyne are saying.

    Ugg, here an embassy is the same as building a mosque/cultural center next to the site where they killed thousands of civilians with two planes filled with our own civilians.

    Now keep in mind I support their rights to build here and hold the constitution over my own wishes. So my view is that they should be able to build it. But I would never write these outrageous comparisons that are not even close to logically sound.

    I am curious, and have a serious question for you Massimo. Do you believe the claim that they want to build this "culture center" to improve Islamic/American relations?

    All the historical and cultural caveats aside, I find it disturbing that atheists are even having this discussion at all.

    This isnt your rational athiest writing a post. This is your flaming liberal lefty writing a post. No doubt all situations reversed (and accuratly, unlike your comparisons) and this was a Catholic church/ cultural center being build somewhere in the world with identical situation, you would be writing how it is wrong for them to build it. There is no doubt in my mind.

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  15. I'm with you on this one Mass. Btw, can I call you Mass?

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  16. Down with the defenses Massimo! I find I disagree with you and agree with Coyne more than the reverse, but in this case, I don't see much reason to single out the community center for special attention.

    I have a general baseline distaste for religious institutions (including the YMCA) and this building is no different. But hey, that's just a general distaste. This place doesn't strike me as being worthy of opposition.

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  17. Well, Park51's website says the facility will include a mosque (unless that's been recently changed--I haven't check it for some time). So, those who claim it's not a mosque, to the extent their point is it's not only a mosque, are correct; not that it makes much difference, as this is a distinction which probably would not impress those who oppose the project. And it's only near "Ground Zero"; but again, this doesn't seem to be something that will resolve the controversy.

    And, as far as I'm aware, there has been no talk of "banning" the project, which plainly cannot be done unless the law is changed, nor is there any First Amendment issue, unless and until the local or federal government act to prohibit the project. The fact that "naughty" people are loudly objecting just doesn't amount to a violation of the First Amendment. If Hitch thinks otherwise, he's not quite as bright or well-informed as I thought him to be.

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  18. Jim, you are more than welcome to write more, but if this is the best you've got...

    > Comparing Peace Monuments
    in Hiroshima to this cultural center/mosque and saying the Japs must be more tolerant than Americans as a result would just be the start of a long list of whats wrong with this post. Its not even close. <

    Which of course you simply state without argument.

    > here an embassy is the same as building a mosque/cultural center next to the site where they killed thousands of civilians with two planes filled with our own civilians. <

    Did you miss the point about the US being responsible for the killing of thousands of Chileans?

    > This isnt your rational athiest writing a post. This is your flaming liberal lefty writing a post. <

    I never apologize for being a liberal. It's the most rational position I know.

    Ciceronianus,

    > The fact that "naughty" people are loudly objecting just doesn't amount to a violation of the First Amendment. If Hitch thinks otherwise, he's not quite as bright or well-informed as I thought him to be. <

    That is not Hitchens' claim. But we are not talking about the legalities of the case, we are talking about tolerance.

    JJE,

    > I have a general baseline distaste for religious institutions (including the YMCA) and this building is no different. <

    So do I, which is precisely why atheists singling this one out makes no sense.

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  19. I tend to lean in the Hitchens direction as well, but not unequivocally. As a suggestive example: I wouldn't object to preventing the Manson Family from building devotional buildings on the grounds that they were a hate movement - particularly on the site of Sharon Tate's previous home. The fact that they are (o.k., were) a religious movement as well as a hate group is irrelevant. I don't think the movement behind the cultural centre/mosque/religious edifice has reached that level quite yet, or at least, I haven't seen evidence to that effect.

    ...unless one points to extremely broad global movements of the sort most clearly viewed while squinting. At that level, despite Harris' protestations, noone really leaves the room unsullied, and few are so exceptionally tarnished as to merit special shunning. Massimo has some good examples, I would add "The Army of God" to the list of modern Christian atrocities along with the Christianity of Africa in general, and I think the word atrocity is better suited to Hamas than to Israel, but perhaps I have a funny notion of ethical conduct.

    The objections against the establishment of this religious site are romantic at best.

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  20. Bravo Massimo!
    Here is my quik rant on the issue.
    I would normally be indifferent to whether they built this Islamic center with a mosque 2 blocks away from the Wrld. Trade Center site. However, now that the right-wing conservatards have made this an "issue", I say build that mosque! No way should we allow these people to be successful in throwing a hissy fit in an effort to persecute a minority religious group.

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  21. @Weiye:
    It's a cultural centre with a prayer room. It is not a mosque.

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  22. I agree completely that this should be a non-issue. Most people seem to be thinking about this so-called mosque through the lens of religious freedom, and indeed, the First Amendment guarantees Muslims the right to freedom of religion. However, it seems to me that property rights are even more basic here. The people building the cultural center own the land/building, so as long as they're complying with relevant zoning laws and such, they are utterly within the law, and the law really has no place for sentiment. So some people's feelings will allegedly be hurt by this - big deal. And to those who think the "mosque" will be a symbol of Muslim conquest, I think that is absurd; besides which, even if it was true, that's still no ground for denying someone or a group of someones legal rights.

    Two somewhat pedantic notes to finish, then.

    First, the Voltaire "quotation" is really a misattribution.

    Second, I don't think it's accurate to say that Hitchens is guilty of "buy[ing] into neocon after-9/11 propaganda." I'm reading Hitch's autobiography currently and it's become clear to me that, whatever the merits of Hitch's position regarding Iraq on its own terms, his position was largely in place before the GW administration, and thus before post-9/11 propaganda.

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  23. Camus,

    Regarding Hitchens and Iraq, it's hard to believe that his position preceded Bush/Cheney propaganda, since they started the war drum beat immediately after 9/11. Regardless, Hitchens was still naively wrong on that, no matter how much rationalization or rewriting of history he does.

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  24. " It was Islam, after all, that propelled those planes into the World Trade Center nine years ago.”

    No, actually I think that was jet fuel. And 'Islam' is a little less than monolithic. They don't have a pope equivalent.

    The law is the law. The cultural center goes forward. As most here I am not happy about it or about Islam in general and would be delighted if it vanished overnight. That whole killing unbelievers thing makes me just a little queasy.

    I think they have their work cut out for them in the U.S. though since in a matter of decades this will be a Hispanic country and they tend toward Catholicism.

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  25. Atheists have the same rights on this topic, including the right to be bigoted idiots just like everybody else.

    Educated America is and should be a cosmopolitan society. Reasonable Muslims, and any daring to show up near ground zero will have to exemplary, should be supported. They didn't commit terrorist acts any more than all Christians protest military funerals. Yet we give Christians the right to do so, at least temporarily. As we give them the right to prohibit marriages that don't comply with their misogynistic ideas about marriage.

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  26. Let's see Hitchens and Obama defend Dr. Laura Schlessinger's Fist Amendment right to say the n-word as much as she pleases.

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  27. Methinks you and Hitchens got the right of this, and it somewhat reminds me of the public vote in Switzerland to outlaw Minarets while I was living there. It should really not be necessary to say this in a civilized country, but if you allow one kind of temple to superstition, you have to allow all of them. If you don't, well, that is precisely what the word discrimination was invented for, whether you like it or not.

    It is weird that a person like Harris, who usually stresses that irrationality as such and not the particulars of a specific religion is the problem, would suddenly try to pretend that Christianity is somehow of a milder nature.

    (As for your side comment, the point is not about somebody being somebody's hero, at least not for me. It is about me actually having a definition of science that is more congruent with Coyne's, and apparently a somewhat different perception of what the New Atheists actually write, to put it diplomatically.)

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  28. Opposing the 'mosque' is bigotry. Going after people who fund terror networks is not. It's easier and cleaner to oppose the 'mosque' isn't it? Its simpler to explain, isn't it.

    I don't oppose this cultural center. It can be put right on top of Freedom Tower (or WTC1) for all I care. And if every other room needs to be bugged (people who bug are less PC than others) in order to catch elements of terror so be it.
    But for our sake don't be an out-and-out bigot, even if you lost a loved one near there. Instead, just keep your eye out for illegal activities that will surely take place on site

    And why is Coyne now a new Atheist? Thought we had Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, with Dennett wisely keeping his distance?

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  29. Max, Dr. Laura did not lose her right to free speech. The First Amendment doesn't say that you cannot be fired from a radio show if your listeners (and advertisers) complain about your racism. It's the free market, remember?

    Dave, New Atheism is broader than the Four Horses of the Apocalypse. Coyne considers himself a New Atheist, and rightly so, from what he writes.

    Alex, a bit sensitive, perhaps? ;-)

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  30. Massimo,

    After Michael Richards' tirade, the NY City Council approved a symbolic resolution to ban the n-word, and now Democratic Rep. John Mizuno wants to do the same in Obama's home state of Hawaii. What a great opportunity to remind Americans about First Amendment rights, as Imam Rauf's supporters feel the need to do.

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  31. I'd note, first, that every article or opinion piece or whathaveyou I've read on the mosque issue has each employed a number of analogies in an effort to understand "what is at stake".

    Is it possible to debate the mosque issue without using analogies?

    Myself, the first analogy that came to mind was Japan post-WWII: the Yasukuni Shrine. For me, the whole "mosque issue" was patently absurd, not even worth discussing. So, too, was the Yasukuni Shrine issue, the first time I'd heard of it. And yet, during Koizumi's time, I saw how this issue that seemed silly to me had the power to shape foreign policy. Indeed, there were numerous times when Koizumi's position on Yasukuni got in the way of relations with Korea and China. His stubborn (religious?) persistence in visiting this shrine ended up creating very real foreign policy roadblocks.

    So that, for me, is the issue. My initial reaction to this whole thing was that it is kind of ridiculous. But things that are ridiculous can often end up shaping foreign (and, of course, domestic) policy. And that, to me, is the real issue at stake. Now, of course, I am still all for the mosque; yet, I still see how this issue could shape policy.

    But perhaps that is only because of the particular analogy I chose (Yasukuni Shrine). Who knows what I'd think of the whole issue if I thought of it without analogy (alas, it is too late for that).

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  32. Massimo, re: Hitch and Iraq

    I know, this is a little tangential, so, I apologize in advance.

    It shouldn't be surprising that Hitch was in favour of the Iraq invasion LONG before 911; he's been calling for Saddam's removal since the 1970s. In the swamp of details that flooded the post-911 scramble for justificatory power, Hitchens' position can be easily diluted, but considered in its most general form, it's not so easy to argue that Hitch was "wrong".

    As is often the case with Hitchens, his position was fundamentally structured on moral premises. To paraphrase: Saddam was the sort of totalitarian dictator that civilized people ought not to tolerate. His argument for invasion was always that there was a duty to do so, and that the worst that could be said about an invasion to forcibly depose Saddam was that it had been too long delayed.

    I'm not convinced that Hitch is necessarily right, in fact, I'm generally a little more pragmatic when it comes to military intervention, but I don't think the question of whether or not there is a moral duty to depose dictators has been so obviously settled. Is it naive, if one believes there is a moral imperative to depose, to actually follow through on that imperative? His rightness or wrongness turns on the imperative.

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  33. Alex, a bit sensitive, perhaps?

    To the repeated implicit to explicit assertions that nearly everybody who disagrees with you on this issue is either an uncritical groupie of a different blog or wants to destroy the humanities? Why, yes.

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  34. James:

    Perhaps it would be more morally defensible not to depose such dictators if they had not so often been installed and propped up by the USA in the first place.

    But well, apparently nobody is able to keep their hands out of weaker countries' internal affairs, from China in North Korea to Pakistan in Afghanistan or Syria in Lebanon. Makes it much harder to use the old proverb that every people has the government it deserves...

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  35. James,

    if Hitchens was in favor of invading Iraq even before 9/11 (and I don't doubt what you wrote) then he is even more naive than I thought. Why Saddam and not China, if we are talking about being the world police of human rights? Or Chad, if we only go after small potatoes? Etc.

    Alex,

    this is not *that* discussion, but as you know, I really don't think I'm misrepresenting Coyne, Dawkins and the like, and I do think that our philosophical differences, while subtle (I mean, it's not like I'm religious, or a creationist!) are most certainly not inexistent.

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  36. @Massimo

    I don't think Hitchens made the argument for the United States particularly, but rather, for any civilized (I think he might himself use the word "civilized") nation. But yes, that translates into the United States. We might agree that this isn't the best solution - personally I believe the United States should transfer its military power, in a slow orderly manner, to an international body - but until the current situation changes, as the party with the military might in its fat little fingers, it ethically falls to the United States to supply military force where necessary.

    But why Iraq? I think there are a few reasons. Hitchens had a history of contact with the Kurds, and has for years been calling for military action against Iraq - it's one of his hobby horses. This doesn't make it a good idea though. But just because there are too many tyrants to depose, one aught not to conclude that none should be deposed, because, well, that would be derelict. So, why Iraq, why not another country? Since 1980, China, for example, has been trending away from human rights infractions (I have to note that much of what passes for human rights infractions is nonsense), and in general, doesn't interact with the world in a threatening manner. They don't even make the long list of regime's that must be disposed of (assuming one can even make a list), much less the short list. In fact, the contest for worst tyrannical leader in 2001 had some clear leaders. Flashback to the dreaded Axis of Evil speech - not as ridiculous as it sounded at the time. But was it necessary to go into Iraq specifically, right at that moment?

    I think Hitchens has argued that this is not a justificatory question. The moral imperative to depose Saddam makes any time the right time. The question of justification, if one accepts moral imperatives, has been met. The only question from there is feasibility.

    Every year I find it harder and harder to argue that Iraq was not feasible. Would Iraqis be better off right now had Saddam not been deposed? I'm not convinced that that is the case; however, it is the case conditions in Iraq are improving where they probably would not be improving if Saddam had not been deposed. Not only was Iraq feasible, but it might be quickly becoming a success story.

    I don't think the charge of "wrong" and "naive" is a very strong one. Certainly, it isn't an obvious one.

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  37. @Alex SL

    I have no idea what any of that means. You'll have to be more direct with me. Complete arguments will be satisfactory.

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  38. James:

    What I want to say is that this is not only an issue about whether you, as an outsider, should intervene if your neighbor is beating his family. Maybe you should not go and rough him up but instead call the cops and let the legal system, however imperfect, do its thing.

    But the situation with Iraq is more complicated: if you are a citizen of countries such as the USA or Germany, you have (or your father has, if you don't like this direct responsibility) pretty much handed that guy a club and told him to go on with it for years and years before he finally fell out of favor with you around 1990. On the one hand, it could be argued that this even increases our responsibility to finally remove Saddam from power, but on the other hand it comes across as pretty cynical to claim the moral high ground, and it should increase your sketpicism about the wisdom of this kind of foreign meddling in other countries' affairs in general.

    I am still uncertain about the best policy myself, but I have this nagging feeling that many countries in the world would be better off if they were just left to decide what government to have on their own, without somebody from the outside either propping up dictators, funneling money to guerrilas or installing democracy by force. Note that even the first two options were usually well-intentioned in a way, as they were often seen as the more benign alternative to those scary socialists who would do totally evil things like nationalizing the oil industry.

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  39. Sorry Massimo, I guess I am failing reasonable debate by not stating my arguement. There is so little common ground its beyond a lost cause. I figured in my two examples the reasoning of why it is certainly not apples to apples was obvious since your comparing apples to McDonalds cheesburgers. The post is just full off poor logic that I cant believe passes for a logical opinion. Starting with your distain for athiests to weigh in and then perpetuate the issue by weighing in yourself (under the guise of answering other athiests that supposedly shouldnt have weighed in?). Thats what I mean by liberal thought overcoming your supposed rational thought. This issue of the mosque has become yet another divider where both the liberals and concervatives have taken opposite sides. Liberals taking the correct stance for the wrong reasons and concervatives taking the wrong stance (perhaps for the right reasons). Which is why you had to weigh in.

    And the Israelis are committing systematic atrocities against the Palestinians as we speak (who, in turn, keep committing acts of violence against Israeli civilians

    Again here is a example of liberal logic as your starting point rather than rational logic. If you took a no fault stance in this that would be one thing, but as liberals so often do, your starting point is with the Israelis being at fault.

    There is just no common ground to be found for us. If anything you (this blog in general) has given me clarity as to what I am fighting against in our country. I need to spend less time with the opposing side and more with the middle.

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  40. Hitchens has a follow-up in Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2264770/

    He opens his second paragraph with: From the beginning, though, I pointed out that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was no great bargain and that his Cordoba Initiative was full of euphemisms about Islamic jihad and Islamic theocracy. I mentioned his sinister belief that the United States was partially responsible for the assault on the World Trade Center and his refusal to take a position on the racist Hamas dictatorship in Gaza. The more one reads through his statements, the more alarming it gets.

    Wow, that could almost sound like Sam Harris. Sure good to know that, despite his words, Hitchens really is so opposed to Harris and Coyne that they're on different teams and only Hitchens gets a point. We can stop reading here before we see Hitchens positively channel Coyne:

    It would be nice if this were true. But tolerance is one of the first and most awkward questions raised by any examination of Islamism. We are wrong to talk as if the only subject was that of terrorism. As Western Europe has already found to its cost, local Muslim leaders have a habit, once they feel strong enough, of making demands of the most intolerant kind.

    That must bring the score to: Massimo 1, everyone else 0.


    It's almost like you can defend people's right to speech and to practice religion like a modern-day Voltaire and still criticize their speech and their religion.

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  41. @Jim:

    Note that this "lack of common ground" does not imply a fundamental inability to communicate and argue. Claims like "you are illogical" usually denote something like "your argument is inconsistent and/or incomplete". This is a demonstrable item independent of "I reject your premises". I don't think that you are correct in relieving yourself of the burden of reasonable argument. But you can, and apparently you have, rendering your comment a an insubstantial voicing of personal prejudices. Bravo?

    "Starting with your distain for athiests to weigh in and then perpetuate the issue by weighing in yourself (under the guise of answering other athiests that supposedly shouldnt have weighed in?). Thats what I mean by liberal thought overcoming your supposed rational thought. This issue of the mosque has become yet another divider where both the liberals and concervatives have taken opposite sides. Liberals taking the correct stance for the wrong reasons and concervatives taking the wrong stance (perhaps for the right reasons). Which is why you had to weigh in."

    Pigliucci does not "disdain atheists who weigh in" on an issue as some general rule, at least not as I have judged by this or other posts. Now, he might agree and or disagree with particular atheists on some particular issue which is exactly what this post illustrates. I also hope that you understand the distinction between "this guy was incorrect", "this guy should have never said anything", and "I find it disturbing that atheists are even having this discussion at all." The last statement is emotive, but I took it as expressing the sentiment (which I share) that it is disturbing that some atheists are jumping aboard this political nontroversy for poor reasons. Why are we focusing on this `mosque'? What do we risk in joining the demagogues on this issue? Where do we stand on this and why? These are all questions worth answering and admitting disagreement, so I'm not sure why you felt the need to call Massimo out for "perpetuating the issue" as though he were guilty of some hypocrisy.

    Also, notice that the Israel-Palestine quote also refers to atrocities committed by the Palestinians. You've made the worrying shift from "Massimo said that Israel has committed atrocities" to something like "typical liberal presupposition, always assuming that Israel is at fault." Since when has Massimo claimed that "Israel is (at least partially) at fault" is a starting point? Might he have reasons for this (possibly which you could request) that trace back to "common ground"?

    "Again here is a example of liberal logic as your starting point rather than rational logic. If you took a no fault stance in this that would be one thing, but as liberals so often do, your starting point is with the Israelis being at fault.

    There is just no common ground to be found for us. If anything you (this blog in general) has given me clarity as to what I am fighting against in our country. I need to spend less time with the opposing side and more with the middle."

    Sorry, but this sounds all-too-familiar. It's a common denialist tactic to dismiss an opponent by labeling her position a presupposition and then treating the mysterious "middle" as automatically the reasonable position. If you had replaced the rest of your post with an argument for ID creationism, I would not have thought it out of place.

    Take that as an insult and dismiss it as such if you wish, but I'd rather you not miss the point.

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  42. @Alex SL

    I think you might be getting my positions - of which I've said little - and Hitchens' positions mixed up. I opposed the Iraqi invasion, and also, I'm not an American - so, some of the assumed POV reads strangely to me. As I hoped to indicate, the problem, in my view, isn't that someone intervened, but that it was a nation rather than an international body. To use your metaphor: it was the observing neighbor who intervened, not the police, or some other legitimate organ.

    In Hitchens' view, the ethical imperative trumps all other concerns. I think this view is insufficient, which is a far cry from being wrong. I usually point to Samantha Powers as the poster child this sort of American doctrine (as opposed to Hitchens). This doctrine is guided by the notion that America, by virtue of the fact of its power, is a defacto global justice enforcement organ, and as such, has a duty to act on behalf the betterment of the world. Samantha Powers was Obama's foreign advisor until she said something mean and was kicked off of his campaign. Hitchens supported Obama, in part, for his apparent commitment to this doctrine (I'm reading between the lines a bit here).

    On a basic level, I agree with them: that a neighbor shouldn't be allowed to beat her husband whenever it suits her, but I disagree in so far as the Powers doctrine holds that the ethical imperative demands that America be an interventionist power, instead, I think it suggests, if anything, that the United States contribute their power to an international body that can legitimately undertake enforcement actions without national bias (or blowback).

    That some countries previously supported unappealing leaders is, in my view, irrelevant. What's more to the point is that military intervention is a necessary tool of world affairs. The question from there is a matter of legitimacy and structure, not whether intervention is a tool in a general sense (of course, particular interventions should always be assessed).

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  43. Tyro,

    I appreciate the sarcasm, but I said in my original post that I often don't agree with Hitchens. His criticism of Rauf seems to me to be unfounded, based on what else I read about the guy. And of course the United States were partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as I also mentioned in my post.

    Still, there are significant differences between Hitchens' original post and Coyne/Harris' positions, regardless of whether you choose to ignore those differences or not.

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  44. James:

    Sorry, it seems I misunderstood you. Also, I was aware that i could not presume you to be American, so I put an "if you are" in front of it.

    Massimo:

    I must say, after reading through Coyne's comment again, I do not see how he has actually taken the position that the centre should not be build. He basically says that he considers it imprudent (an opinion everybody is entitled to) but that it is their right to do it. The latter point seems to be what is important.

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  45. Alex,

    *nobody* is arguing that the developers have no right to build the center, not even Sarah Palin. But Coyne sees himself as advocating a different position from Hitchens', hence the whole point of his post.

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  46. Massimo: "But I object to and am terrified just as much by the other two Abrahamic religions...Yes, the Crusades happened centuries ago, but nothing like that is possible for Christianity today because it no longer has temporal power and armies at its disposal, not because the religion is intrinsically kinder."

    You could make the same argument for those who espouse the ideology of atheistic materialism. I shudder to think what our society would be like if the "New Atheists" and their ilk ever secure and maintain political power.

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  47. Zach,
    I am sorry, your point it what? that its not hipocritical to say something should be a non-issue and then write a post to make a complete arguement on the issue?(not on why its a non-issue for athiests, but for why one stance is correct). I am sure Massimo appreciates your defence, but I still fail to see the logic in it

    I also hope that you understand the distinction between "this guy was incorrect", "this guy should have never said anything", and "I find it disturbing that atheists are even having this discussion at all." The last statement is emotive, but I took it as expressing the sentiment (which I share) that it is disturbing that some atheists are jumping aboard this political nontroversy for poor reasons

    Hey Zach, the post isnt about why athiests shouldnt join in with the political non-controversy. He makes an arguement as to why one stance is correct. So no, your point is not valid here. Massimo used it as a lead in, so that he could weigh in himself. This is because it is just as important to align himself with liberalism than it is rational thought or atheism or even more so.

    You've made the worrying shift from "Massimo said that Israel has committed atrocities" to something like "typical liberal presupposition, always assuming that Israel is at fault."

    The way it reads is that the Israeli are comitting atrocities against the Palestines (and thenin turnthe Palestinians do the reverse). Written this way, it is saying that the Israelis started it and the Palestines are reacting to the atrocities. Usually if the author wants someone to know that their is equal blame he doesnt write Joe puched Sam and then in turn Sam punched Joe back". He writes Sam and Joe punch each other, or something of that affect. If what you say is true, and M feels the Palestines are equally to blame Massimo should correct me.

    And since he has weighed in so completely, I would still like Massimo to answer my origonal question. - Do you believe the claim that they want to build this "culture center" to improve Islamic/American relations? Given the controversy, is that even remotely logical? You defend them, finish the job.

    Sorry, but this sounds all-too-familiar. It's a common denialist tactic to dismiss an opponent by labeling her position a presupposition and then treating the mysterious "middle" as automatically the reasonable position. If you had replaced the rest of your post with an argument for ID creationism, I would not have thought it out of place.

    Yeah yeah Yeah, then label me as a creationists so you can do the same? its comical you make the same mistake your troubled by in the same sentence. (Yes I realize your not labeling me, but trying to associate instead which is no different)

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  48. Massimo: " And the Israelis are committing systematic atrocities against the Palestinians as we speak (who, in turn, keep committing acts of violence against Israeli civilians), and those atrocities are incited and justified by orthodox Judaism."

    You're walking a fine line here. Your statement could be interpreted as anti-semitic.

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  49. Indeed. Curious how people equate criticism of Israel (the state) or Judaism (the religion) with criticism of Jews (the people).

    I think that dishonest equivocation is politically motivated to silence criticism and has been all too effective.

    Massimo 1 - Paisley 0

    :)

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  50. Tyro: "Indeed. Curious how people equate criticism of Israel (the state) or Judaism (the religion) with criticism of Jews (the people)."

    So, when you trash Christianity and Islam, you're not trashing Christians and Muslims?

    Tyro: "I think that dishonest equivocation is politically motivated to silence criticism and has been all too effective."

    Agreed.

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  51. So, when you trash Christianity and Islam, you're not trashing Christians and Muslims?

    No, I am discussing ideas and in this case I think the ideas are incorrect. If people believe in these ideas so firmly that they shape their identity around them and attach their self-worth to these beliefs, then it's possible (probable even) that some people may take it personally but I don't see a way around that, do you?

    There are times when specific Christians push themselves forward to discuss their own ideas and then it's entirely appropriate to critique their impact on the world, just as we can criticize Bush or Obama in addition to criticizing their ideas. Here we're still dealing with individuals and not groups of people, even though some may be so attached to their political leaders that they feel personally offended. Again, I don't see a way around that, do you?

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  52. Jim,

    You'll notice that there's no contradiction in the following sentence: "Though X should not be an issue, it nevertheless has become an issue, so here's my stance on X." There are lots of issues which, in my opinion, shouldn't be issues, but this does not mean that I will refrain from ever discussing them. I don't think that gay marriage should be an issue, and yet it is, and there are valid reasons to discuss it now that it is an issue. If you do not understand these distinctions now, I doubt very much that I can help you further.

    In Massimo's case, if I interpret correctly, he feels that the "Ground Zero Mosque" is a bit of demagogy from a particular sector of the Right and that atheists should easily recognize this. This being a moral argument, he uses widely-held values to reach his conclusion. What you accuse him of is treating such values as a "starting point", but Massimo (if I read his comments correctly) does not consider things like "the First Amendment should be upheld" to be starting points. We can debate values such as this and how we label them (liberal or not), but in rejecting those values, one should at least name those with which he disagrees if he wants to be understood.

    Massimo is treating First Amendment rights in a presuppositional way in the same manner that he treats the existence of an objective reality in a presuppositional way. It does not mean that lacks arguments in support of either.

    For Israel and Palestine, you and Massimo can debate the always fun question of "who started it" if you please, but if Massimo assigns Israel original fault, he might well be treating this as the outcome of a method instead of an ideological starting point. If political ideology is the problem, as you seem to imply, then you might ask yourself why you would feel the need to dismiss this post as irrational on the basis of a politically-charged example.

    Lastly, I'm not associating you with creationists as grounds for dismissing you. I only point out that you employ reasoning which you would presumably reject from others.

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  53. It took you 1091 words to say something you could have said in 4: I agree with Hitchy.

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  54. I would say that it is Harris and Coyne 1 - Hitchens 0 for they prove to know well the real nature of islamic ideology (in the same league with Nazism and Bolshevism) and the extreme scarcity of the real muslim moderates, in the Western acceptation of this term (the 'nutcase' you talk about have actually very strong justification for their deeds in basic islamic traditions, although of course suicide bombimg is a novel method in the 'arsenal' of islam). As far as I know Hitchens also knows well islam so I am somehow puzzled of his stance, he is well aware of the fact that if islam ever gain some power no devout muslim (a vast majority) will be so generous with your successors...I would go well beyond Harris in fact the imam Rauf cannot be labeled 'moderate' (given his support for sharia, blamed the U.S. for the 9/11 attacks etc) and The Third Jihad, active action to overthrow your Constitution, is already in America (via the stealth jihad of CAIR, read for example the book 'Muslim Mafia'). The Ground Zero project should be moved elsewhere, The First Amendment is no excuse for inaction.

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