In the last couple of weeks Objectivists have been debating whether our government should interfere with the construction of a planned Mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. The debate seems to have started on Facebook, then continued on Diana Hsieh’s Noodle Food blog and elsewhere. Leonard Peikoff then devoted an entire podcast to the issue, which sparked even more debate, both on Facebook, and back on Diana’s blog, where both she and Paul Hsieh have written posts reiterating and further explaining their disagreement with Leonard on this issue. In this post I offer some further considerations in support of Leonard Peikoff’s stand on this issue, and try to address some of the arguments raised by the other side. Note that I am not speaking for Leonard Peikoff on this issue, although I am arguing in support of his stand on it.
As I understand it, we are at war with those who are animated by an ideology — a belligerent interpretation of Islam — that declares war on us (the nonbelievers) and our way of life. Because they have declared war on us, we are at war with them, regardless of whether our government has chosen to formally or explicitly declare war on anyone. This war is more than a cultural war, because this ideology explicitly advocates the use of force in order to propagate its ideas and way of life. Most importantly, in my view, a significant number have acted in accordance with its teachings, killing thousands of Americans. And, by all accounts, they will continue to do so. Finally, it seems that the majority of Islam’s adherents are sitting by, silent, refusing to denounce the initiation of force by their fellow believers.
Nonetheless, it has been argued that, because our government has not explicitly declared war, then any of the potential ways that our government might stop the mosque from being built, within the context of our current legal system, would negate property rights. Why? Because without that declaration of war, property rights are presumably retained by those who own the land and intend to build a mosque there.
I think there are a couple issues here that prevent some Objectivists from wholeheartedly agreeing with Leonard Peikoff’s view.
First, I think that one’s understanding of the nature of Islam will affect whether one believes that building a Mosque in the United States is an exercise of property rights. So long as one believes in the existence of a predominantly peaceful Islam, with only some fringe elements (call them what you want) being responsible for terrorist attacks on the U.S., then one is more likely to believe that property rights are the relevant principle.
There’s another issue, however: even if you agree that in reality, there is no property right to build a Mosque in the U.S., much less near Ground Zero, you might still think that you want the government to follow proper procedures – i.e., respect the ideal of the rule of law – before stripping any legal rights away from the owners of the property at issue. You might be concerned that, should proper procedures/precedents not be followed or set, then you will be statism’s next victim. I have a few thoughts on this.
We are good people living under a bad government in a time of war. Objectivists have argued, properly, that if our government was bad, in the sense of being an aggressor in war, then we should be prepared to suffer the consequences when another country acts in self-defense. However, here our government is not the aggressor, it’s the appeaser. Do we similarly have to sit back – in the name of the rule of law – and let ourselves be wiped out as collateral damage? One argument that has been made is that, because we’ve allowed our government to go down this path, we have to be prepared to accept the consequences. But note that the argument is not that we have to accept the consequences in order to preserve the principle of property rights; instead the issue, as I see it, boils down to the preservation of the rule of law. So what can be said about that?
First, there probably are good legal arguments that could be made to stop this, arguments that need not presuppose that our government has formally declared war. This approach is tricky, of course, because you can’t say that someone doesn’t have a right to property, simply because his views, which he plans to promote via use of his property, at root negate the principle of private property. Plenty of ideologies do that. So this gets back to the problem of recognizing the unique nature of Islam in this regard. To make the proper sort of legal argument I have in mind – something along the lines of a well-defined trade embargo, or perhaps a charge of conspiracy to commit a crime, or, as James Valliant has suggested, solicitation to murder – one has to recognize that the distinguishing characteristic of Islam as a religion is its doctrine of Jihad, which is, in effect, an incitement to violence, even though many individual Muslims aren’t violent and never will be. If you don’t believe that a belligerent interpretation of Jihad is embraced by a substantial number of Muslims, then you will likely reject this approach.
Some have doubted whether Islam can be distinguished in this way, and have told me that the holy books of other religions have similarly violent passages. I am not an expert on religion, but what I have seen is that a belligerent interpretation of Islam is, today, inciting a significant number of Muslims, on a regular basis, to commit terrorist attacks against the US. For every attack or planned attack we learn about in the news, imagine how many have been thwarted, that we never hear about. There’s probably more to say about this distinction, but to me, a call to kill in the name of Catholicism, today, would pretty much fall on deaf ears the way that “Kill in the name of the blue-green martians” would.
OK, so much for using good legal arguments to stop the Mosque. There is also the option of using bad legal arguments. And given that our government won’t declare war or even acknowledge who the enemy is, a bad legal argument is likely what we’d be in for. So what we’d ask the government to use is some sort of invalid law, e.g., a land use regulation, to stop the building of the mosque. Note that here, if you don’t make a principled distinction between Islam and other ideologies, depending on which invalid law you choose to deploy, you are in danger of setting a precedent that can later be used against any ideology that challenges the government. This is what many Objectivists are concerned about: the use of invalid law to stop this mosque as setting a dangerous precedent. A few considerations here.
Longer-term vs. shorter-term perspective. Again, I return to recognizing the nature of Islam. If you believe the worst about Islam, you will see that there will be no long term unless the propagation of this ideology is stopped whenever possible, by whatever means. Ask the question this way: Should we argue for the adherence to proper legal procedure in a context where:
- Doing so puts American citizens at potential tremendous risk, in the immediate future, plus
- Nowhere else in the government are those procedures being strictly adhered to anyway.
Consider some other things we might support only in the context of a mixed economy:
One Facebook friend raised the issue of cheering for Apollo 11, even though one knows that government should not be investing in space exploration. Rand discusses similar (albeit less inspiring) examples in her essay, “A Question of Scholarships,” where she argues that it is OK to take advantage of invalid laws (government scholarships and funding for research), so long as one advocates the abolition of such laws. Rand writes, “[A] scientist is morally justified in accepting government grants—so long as he opposes all forms of welfare statism. As in the case of scholarship-recipients, a scientist does not have to add self-martyrdom to the injustices he suffers.” Similarly, can’t we take advantage of whatever invalid laws might be used to stop the building of this mosque, so long as we consider any benefit to be gained thereby as retribution for all the damage done to us by a government that has not protected us, and so long as we advocate the abolition of these invalid laws?
Another example is that of promoting school vouchers. Given the context of public education, many promote school vouchers – using other people’s money to pay for your child’s private education – on the idea that we are at least moving towards relative freedom. One can argue that, here, using invalid laws to stop the building of the Mosque does move us towards relative freedom, in that it stops creeping Sharia law and indeed might even save our lives. But again, I think making this argument requires one to understand the essential nature of Islam, its role in the world now and in the immediate future.
I read Paul Hsieh’s post and I like his framing of the issue as a lose-lose situation which has arisen because the best option — that of our government declaring war against a properly identified enemy — has been taken off the table. I agree that there’s a judgment call to be made here, but if the choice is secular statism vs. Sharia law, I will pick the former. The goal of belligerent Jihadists is the same as that of the secular statists: totalitarianism. The difference is that the Jihadists work to achieve this both via immediate violence, and via cultural infiltration/persuasion. The secular statists aren’t yet going the open immediate violence route. In addition, secular statism has less staying power than does theocratic statism, as Leonard Peikoff has discussed numerous times.