The mosque of pain

I've had nothing good to say about former Bush 43 speechwriter Michael Gerson's work in the Washington Post.  Every day is a new day, however, so today a little kudos for an argument well argued.  Not, of course, just because I agree with the conclusion (which I do, but that does not a good argument always make, trust me), rather because I think he's lined up the right sort of reasons for it (truth be told, I don't like some of them).

In this debate, grace is in short supply but irony abounds. The Christian fundamentalist view of Islam bears a striking resemblance to the New York Times' view of Christian fundamentalism — a simplistic emphasis on the worst elements of a complex religious tradition. Both create a caricature, then assert that the Constitution is under assault by an army of straw men. The debates within Islam on the nature and application of sharia law, for example, are at least as complex as the debates among Christian theologians on the nature of social justice. And the political application of Islam differs so greatly — from Saudi Arabia to Mali to Morocco to Bosnia to Tanzania to Detroit — that it defies easy summary.

Many Christian fundamentalists seem oblivious to the similarity of their own legal and cultural peril. In portions of America — say San Francisco or Vermont — conservative Christians are sometimes also viewed as suspicious, illiberal outsiders. Their opinions on gender roles, homosexuality and public morality are viewed as an attack on constitutional values — much as fundamentalists view the threat from Islam. Some secular critics of Islam — Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens come to mind — explicitly argue that the real threat to freedom comes from the oppressive moralism of the entire Abrahamic tradition — Jewish, Christian and Muslim.

Christian fundamentalists who undermine religious liberty in order to target Muslims are playing a game of intolerance roulette. That First Amendment might come in handy someday.  

Ok, I think he's wrong about the New York Times, and I think his appeal to Christian fundamentalists here is a bit disturbing (you're both oppressive moralists!), though perhaps not incorrect.  Many Muslims are cultural if not fiscal and political conservatives.  Alientating them is bad politics.

The more interesting reason comes at the end: "That First Amendment might come in handy someday."  Or put in another way: "you'd be singing a different tune if the shoe were on the other foot."  And here we have, I think, another interesting of the subjunctive (or hypthetical) tu quoque.  Discussed also here.

The argument is clearly of the ad hominem variety.  Not the fallacious kind.  It points out a pragmatic inconsistency in this particular Mosque-opposer's hypothetical argument.  The practical inconsistency is driven, I think, by the analogy with similar circumstances.  So question: is the subjunctive tu quoque burden met by an argument from analogy?  I ask this because many posts ago Scott wondered what the burden was for such arguments (when they're non fallacious).  Perhaps this is one possibility.

9 thoughts on “The mosque of pain”

  1. Hi John,
    So Gerson's audience is the class of people who self-identify as American Christian Fundamentalists, and his argument is: don't discriminate on the basis of being illiberal interlopers, because you can be (and have been) seen as exactly of the same kind.   This seems a good prudential argument, and it fits with this subjunctive form of tu quoque, which runs something along the lines: how would you like it if… (because it is likely)?
    Two questions.  First one is about burden of proof for these subjunctive cases.  This one seems to require for the 'First Amendment Roulette' analogy to work that there are not only real likelihoods but actual cases of American Christian Fundamentalists being seen as (and perhaps also behaving as) illiberal interlopers and also being treated as political pariahs.  These cases like Vermont and SanFran, just from my taking the temperature of Fundamentalists (I'm related to a few), are often taken as liminal.  One thing they say in response: that's why we have to fight so hard for our country — so that sort of thing doesn't happen here in Texas!  Don't the counterfactuals have also to be recognized as also likely in this case?
    Second question: isn't this the reason why Texas Fundamentalists are also called the Texas Taliban?  Shouldn't Gerson instead argue (again in tu quoque fashion): if Christian fundamentalists care so much about the illiberal elements of Islam, they also need to turn their critical eye to the illiberals in their midst.

  2. First, a quick note:In my recent visit to NY I stopped by ground zero and also by the place of the new Islamic center. This debate is just silly for me. If one wants to see a real controversy, this would be a good read:
    As far as the article goes, I think the author is right in pointing out the irony and inconsistency of those certain groups that strongly oppose the Islamic Center.
    The problem I have with it is here: "The Christian fundamentalist view of Islam bears a striking resemblance to the New York Times' view of Christian fundamentalism — a simplistic emphasis on the worst elements of a complex religious tradition."  and especially here: "Many Christian fundamentalists seem oblivious to the similarity of their own legal and cultural peril."
    I think Gerson commits at best an innocent generalization or at worst a straw-man. On what basis, he assumes that the position of Christian fundamentalists is best represented by the two examples he cites?

  3. Glad you find the debate silly.  Unfortunately many don't.  Gerson is a fundamentalist Christian so far as I know, so I think he knows whereof he speaks on this issue.  But he could be wrong.  He's unlikely, however, to caricature their view.  He might of course be mistaken. 

  4. Gerson might be right or not: "Not many prominent conservative evangelicals  have weighed in on the controversial effort to establish a mosque and Islamic cultural center near New York City’s Ground Zero, and even fewer have voiced support for the project." ( However, shouldn't he bring some kind of evidence to support his general claims?
    That aside, I still don't understand how a non-fallacious subjective tu quoque is a valid argument. How does it actually answer the question of should/shouldn't they be allowed to build an Islamic center? To me it still sounds like red herring.

  5. Simple.  If it were a matter of Christians asserting their rights (say, after some kind of wacky Christ-inspired terrorist attack–hard to imagine, I know).  They might assert that Christian terrorists are a minority, etc..

  6. To me, the problem with subjective tu quoque is that it doesn't actually address the argument, but rather the person(s) that makes the argument.
    That's why I see it as a red herring: the subject changed from the issue at hand to the person raising the issue.

  7. Not all ad hominems are of the fallacious or irrelevent type.  It is relevant to ask about consistency, hypothetical or not, in someone's committments.  It's fallacious, of course, or just weak, if such consistency is not relevant to thepoint being made. 

  8. Here's how I read Gerson's piece:
    Original argument: "Many" claim that Islam is dangerous to our government. Therefore, they should not be allowed to build Islamic centers and mosques ,and Muslims should lose their right to freedom of religion.
    His first reply: Islam is misunderstood and it's not dangerous to our government. (attacking the first premise) I think that's a valid form of a contra-argument.
    However, his second point – You woudn't want people to take your rights based on a misconception of your religious beliefs – to me it's irrelevant to the original argument. 
    Maybe I'm seeing his second point too much as a reply to the original argument.

  9. I don't think the second one is his point.  They woudn't want to give anyone reason to take away their freedom of religion.  One day, some idiot may want to do that.  They will want those 1st amendment rights.  They don't want them now, they may want them.

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