After weeks of dodging the issue, at a White House Ramadan dinner Friday night, President Obama came out in support of Park51, the planned Muslim community center and mosque two blocks away from the World Trade Center site.
While the project may represent religious tolerance, it also highlights the failure of moderate Muslims to condemn extremists and try to seriously reform Islam, says author Sam Harris—something the president has failed to acknowledge.
Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself. This is not to say, however, that I think we should prevent our fellow citizens from building “the ground zero mosque.” There is probably no legal basis to do so in any case—nor should there be. But the margin between what is legal and what is desirable, or even decent, leaves room for many projects that well-intentioned people might still find offensive. If you can raise the requisite $100 million, you might also build a shrine to Satan on this spot, complete with the names of all the non-believing victims of 9/11 destined to suffer for eternity in Hell. You could also build an Institute of “9/11 Truth,” catering to the credulity, masochism, and paranoia of the 16 percent of Americans who imagine that the World Trade Center was intentionally demolished by agents of the U.S. government. Incidentally, any shrine to conspiracy thinking should probably also contain a mosque, along with a list of the 4,000 Jews who suspiciously declined to practice their usury in the Twin Towers on the day of the attack.
The New York Times has declared that the proposed mosque will be nothing less than “a monument to tolerance.” It goes without saying that tolerance is a value to which we should all be deeply committed. Nor can we ignore the fact that many who oppose the construction of this mosque embody all that is terrifyingly askew in conservative America—“birthers,” those sincerely awaiting the Rapture, opportunistic Republican politicians, and utter lunatics who yearn to see Sarah Palin become the next president of the United States (note that Palin herself probably falls into several of these categories). These people are wrong about almost everything under the sun. The problem, however, is that they are not quite wrong about Islam.
In his speech supporting the mosque, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.” This statement has the virtue of being almost true. But it is also true that honest, freedom-loving Muslims should be the first to view their fellow Muslims somewhat differently. At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths. The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.
In a well-meaning attempt to be tolerant of other cultures and religions we often blithely subvert our values and morality, says Sam Harris, the outspoken critic of blind religious faith. We do this because we think that questions about good and evil or right and wrong cannot be answered definitively. But they can, he told a rapt audience at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference Thursday — and they should.
Harris is no stranger to the argument that, to put it more mildly than he might, religion does more harm than good. His 2005 New York Times bestseller The End of Faith attempted to draw a straight line from faith to human atrocities. His subsequent Letter to a Christian Nation took on the fierce pushback he received from writing his first book.
So it should come as no surprise that Harris ran with this theme at TED, expanding his argument beyond the faithful to the secular-leaning. Scientists and academics, who are wedded to facts and empiricism, he said, do something different when they talk about morality. “We value differences of opinion in a way that we don’t in other areas,” Harris said.
We know that there are fundamentally right and wrong answers to certain questions and issues, but do not trust our instincts, he said. These cast-aside tenets should respected and should be the basis of a universal morality, regardless of variations in cultures and belief.
Even within a single culture it’s easy to fall into a morally relativistic trap, he said. For example, Harris noted, there are 21 states in the U.S. where it’s legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board to the point of leaving bruises and breaking skin. The rationale for this behavior is the Biblical quote about sparing the rod and spoiling the child.
The obvious question, Harris said, is whether it is actually a sound idea to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behavior.
He also pointed to the issue of women in the Muslim world who cover themselves in burqas.
“I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil. Women should be able to wear whatever they want,” he said. But it’s not an option when not wearing a burqa is a punishable offense. And even more importantly, he said, what of those cultures which punish a brutalized woman, where “when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?”
We should not feel constrained to assert what we think is an objective truth — that such behavior is wrong — for fear that it will be taken as subjective meddling or demagoguery, Harris argued. There is a moral imperative not to hold one’s tongue but rather to speak out.
“Who are we not to say [that it’s wrong]?” he asked. “Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well being that we have to be nonjudgmental about a practice like this?”
We can no longer respect and tolerate vast differences of opinion of what constitutes basic humanity any more than we can take seriously different opinions about how disease spreads or what it takes to make buildings and airplanes safe, Harris insisted.
We simply must converge on the answers we give to the most important question in human life, Harris concluded. And to do that we have to admit that there are answers.
GOJRA, Pakistan, Aug. 2 — They do not want to bury the Christians. They want the nation to see them.
By nightfall Sunday, hundreds of residents of the Christian enclave here stood in defiant vigil around seven particleboard coffins neatly aligned on the train tracks that run through town. They had demands: Until the government investigates the killings and finds those responsible, they will not remove the bodies.
Police waited warily in the street. A man on a loudspeaker bellowed the villagers’ sentiments, which included anger at provincial authorities for not stopping the killings.
“Death to the Punjab government!”
A spasm of religious violence came to this rural town in the shape of an angry Muslim mob Saturday morning. The Muslims marched to avenge what they believed was the desecration of a Koran one week earlier. When it was over, dozens of houses were torched and Faith Bible Pentecostal Church lay in ruins. Two villagers were shot dead, residents said. Five others, including two children, burned alive.
Killing has become commonplace in Pakistan. But this attack startled the country both for its ferocity and for its stark message to religious minorities. Many saw the violence as further evidence of the growing power of the Taliban and allied Islamist militant groups in Punjab province, home to about half of Pakistan’s population.
“They have made up their minds to crush Christianity. They always call us dogs of America, agents of America,” said Romar Sardar, an English teacher from the area. “There has been no protection by the police. Nothing.”
The conflict apparently began with a wedding. On the evening of July 25, a wedding procession for a Christian couple passed through the nearby village of Korian, according to a police report. Revelers danced and threw money in the air, as is local custom. In the morning, a resident told police he had picked up scraps of paper on the ground and found Arabic writing. “We examined them, and it was the pages from the holy Koran,” the man said in the report.
Four days later, the accused, a member of the wedding party named Talib Masih, faced a meeting of local elders, who demanded that he be punished. Instead of repenting, the report said, he denied the desecration, and as a result, “the whole Muslim population was enraged.” The house burning began that night and then quieted down until Saturday morning.
That day, Riaz Masih, 68, a retired teacher, grew increasingly worried as a crowd gathered, chanting anti-Christian slogans and cursing Americans. He locked his house and rushed with his wife and children to the home of a Muslim friend nearby. The crowd, some wearing black veils and carrying guns, turned down Masih’s narrow brick alley near the train tracks and into the Christian Colony, according to several witnesses. Residents and marchers threw rocks at each other, and gunfire broke out. Using what residents described as gasoline and other flammable chemicals, the mob torched Masih’s house.
“We have nothing left,” he said, standing in the charred remains of his living room, his daughter’s empty jewelry box at his feet. “We are trying to face this in the name of Jesus Christ. The Bible says you cannot take revenge.”
On Sunday, the scenes of wreckage and dismay played out in house after house. Residents tossed burned blankets and clothing, broken televisions, and charred beds into heaps on the street. Fruit seller Iqbal Masih, 49, stepped over his mangled carts on his patio and tried to assess what was left of his daughter’s dowry. The armoire, a refrigerator, the bedding were burned; the $675 for furniture had disappeared.
“I am out of my mind. I can’t look,” he said. “They have subjected us to severe cruelties. May God show them the right path.”
At least four of the dead came from a single house. As the mob approached, a bullet struck Hamid Masih, a builder, in the head as he stood in his doorway, said his son, Min Has. Has heaved his father onto a motorcycle and drove him to a hospital, while the rest of the family members crowded in a back bedroom. The house began burning, and smoked billowed into the rooms. At least three other relatives, including 5- and 8-year-old siblings, died in the flames, according to residents. “There was fire everywhere, and it was impossible for them to get out,” Has said.
“I know one thing. They want to destroy Christians,” said Atiq Masih, 22, a janitor who was shot in the right knee. “They were attacking everything.”
Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the Punjab population, have been targeted in other recent cases. In June, a mob attacked Christian homes in the Kasur district of Punjab for allegedly dishonoring the prophet Mohammed. In Pakistan, which has strict laws against blasphemy, people can be imprisoned for life or put to death for insulting Islam.
Residents in Gojra said that this was the first incident of its kind in the town and that Christians and Muslims have long lived alongside one another without serious problems. They blamed Muslim clerics for inciting anger over the Koran incident in mosque sermons and accused the Taliban and the militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba of involvement in the attack.
“The provincial government is not accepting that a large part of Punjab is suffering from religious intolerance due to the Taliban and religious outfits,” said Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, which issues an annual report on religious minorities in Pakistan. “They have been very negligent. This conflict was brewing for three days, and they were not receptive. They were not taking it seriously.”
Pakistan’s president and prime minister have called for investigations into the violence. By Sunday, police and paramilitary troops had taken up positions in the town. Provincial authorities said they have already made arrests and registered cases against 800 people. Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti denied that any Koran had been desecrated.
Police in Gojra said the violence Saturday was beyond their control.
“It happened all of a sudden. The police that were here were too few in number to stop it,” said policeman Kashif Sadiq. “It’s not fair to assume they let this happen intentionally.”
What’s wrong with religion? Here’s a prime example. A teacher somehow manages to insult their non-existent god by naming a stuffed animal the same name as their god in a class full of small children; instead of letting their almighty god take care of her blasphemy, they call for blood saying she should be killed.
Thousands of people have marched in the Sudanese capital Khartoum to call for UK teacher Gillian Gibbons to be shot.
Mrs Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, was jailed by a court on Thursday after children in her class named a teddy bear Muhammad.
She was sentenced to 15 days for insulting religion, and she will then be deported.
The marchers took to the streets after Friday prayers to denounce the leniency of the sentence.
The protesters gathered in Martyrs Square, outside the presidential palace in the capital, many of them carrying knives and sticks.
Marchers chanted “Shame, shame on the UK”, “No tolerance – execution” and “Kill her, kill her by firing squad”.
Hundreds of riot police were deployed but they did not break up the demonstration.