Privileged Status?

Early last Saturday morning, someone apparently tossed a small IED (improvised explosive device) through the window of an imam’s office at the Dar al-Farooq Mosque in Bloomington, MN. Fortunately, no one was injured, and damage from the explosion was minimal (it seems more damage was done by the sprinkler system triggered by the explosion than the explosion itself). minnesotamosqueThe timing seems curious. The attack occurred around 5:05, almost an hour before scheduled sunrise prayers. According to the imam, he would normally be at his desk in his office at that time, but for some reason was late on Saturday morning. It is possible that this attack was directed at harming the imam, or it may simply have been the most convenient window for the attacker’s purposes. Time will tell.

In any case, if the motive for this attack was to injure/murder the imam or to cause fear and insecurity (or worse) to the Muslim community, it must be roundly condemned. Both federal and state law enforcement agencies are committed to finding the perpetrator and exposing him/her to justice, which is as it should be.

In the meantime, various groups and political leaders have seized on this incident as evidence of rising Islamophobia, and have excoriated leaders who as of yet have not registered their hatred of Islamophobes. President Trump in particular has been the target of much ire from the Muslim and liberal activist communities for not even acknowledging this attack in the midst of his voluminous tweeting.

Less than 24 hours after this unprovoked attack on the Dar al-Farooq mosque, an even more heinous attack took place at a church during a Sunday morning worship service. Gunmen stormed into the sanctuary of the St. Philip’s Catholic Church during early morning mass attended by about 100 parishioners. St. Philips NigeriaThey opened fire indiscriminately and when the smoke had cleared and they had fled, over 50 people lay dead with many more seriously wounded. You probably didn’t read about this in US media reports because the massacre occurred in Nigeria.

Yet, human beings are human beings the world over.  On any scale of evil deeds, what happened last Sunday in Nigeria registers with immensely greater magnitude than the relatively minor mosque attack in MN, where thankfully there was no loss of life or personal injury. Yet to my knowledge, President Trump has not tweeted about this attack either.

One might justifiably argue that since he is President of the United States, he ought to be particularly concerned with attacks in this country rather than those committed elsewhere. And yet, US presidents have regularly spoken out when major tragedies or terrorist attacks have occurred in other parts of the world. Why has President Trump remained silent on these recent matters?

Perhaps the central reason is that in neither case has the perpetrator(s) been caught so we don’t yet clearly know the motivation behind the actions. If either or both of these turn out to be the fruit of terrorism, I suspect the condemnations will flow quickly. As of now, investigations are under way.

It is understandable that Muslim groups and Minnesota politicians would be clamoring for national attention to promote an anti-Islamophobia message, yet in the midst of all the extreme and apocalyptic fear-mongering I would plead for some balance in perspective. While any and all harassment and aggression is wrong no matter who the victim, let us remember that in our present age the vast number of perpetrators of religious hate/terrorism self-identify as Muslims acting in the name of their faith.

In America, where all residents are guaranteed freedom of religion and entitled to personal safety and security, we must unabashedly condemn physical or verbal attacks against Muslims and their places of worship, as we would and do condemn such attacks against any other individuals, groups or facilities. We must continue to work against bigotry and blind hatred, and to foster instead the appreciation or at least the tolerance of ethnic, social and religious diversity. Remarkably, as a free society of some 330 million people, the United States of America does a pretty decent job demonstrating tolerance and comity. Would that all other nations had the same aspirations.

Of course, freedom of religion falls under the larger umbrella of freedom of speech, which means that while we welcome and protect the right to worship as one chooses, we also welcome and protect the freedom to critique ideas and practices with which we disagree. In the public square of competing beliefs, no religion or philosophy or world view is accorded a blanket exemption from criticism. Our convictions as a society are that the application of civil discourse and debate leads us closer to truth and that the suppression of such discourse leads to darkness and ignorance.

As a result, we must make a clear distinction between legitimate criticism of ideas on the one hand and hate speech on the other. The latter appeals not to reason or evidence but to emotion and visceral prejudice. The former tests ideas and claims, pointing out their irrationality or undesirability regarding the common good.

Particularly with regard to Islam, there are some forces today seeking to ban any criticism of its beliefs or practices as hate speech. Instead of distinguishing between criticism of the actual teachings of Islam and perjoratives against its practitioners, such a ban would put Islam on a pedestal with preferred status, untouchable by competing beliefs. Such a move would sound the death knell for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, even freedom of thought.voltaire.jpg

So, let us work hard to protect the rights of all, including Muslims, to worship and live freely. But let us also guard against the privileging of one particular belief system, even under the misguided notion that it needs special protection from purported bigots.  Let the rival claims to truth continue to joust robustly in the public square of ideas, and may the best among them win!


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