The plan to construct a mosque in New York City has generated considerable controversy. The main cause of the concern is that the proposed mosque will be located near ground zero. Not surprisingly, many people consider this to be an insult to those who died on 9/11.
One argument used against allowing the mosque in the area is based on the view that the attack was an Islamic attack. To allow an Islamic building in the area would be a grave offense against those killed during the attack and their families. As such, the Mosque should not be allowed in the area.
This argument rests, obviously enough, on the assumption of collective guilt. To be specific, the assumption is that all of Islam is responsible for the attack because the attackers were followers of Islam. Of course, there is matter of justifying this assumption.
One principle that would justify this assumption is that an attack conducted by believers in X is an X attack. In the case of 9/11, since the attackers believed in Islam, this made the attack an Islamic attack. More generally, this would be the principle that any misdeed by a believer in X would be the responsibility of all others who believe in X.
While people who dislike Islam might find initially find this appealing, a little consideration reveals that the principle applies to all systems of belief. For example, this principle would entail that the sexual molestation conducted by Catholic priests was a Christian attack on children. From this it could be argued that Christian buildings should not be allowed anywhere near children (such as schools). Presumably children should also not be allowed anywhere near Christian buildings.
One might be tempted to say that the actions of Catholics only spreads the guilt to Catholics. However, if the actions of Sunni Muslims spreads the guilt to all of Islam, then the same sort of spreading should apply to Christianity as well.
This argument is not limited to religions. In fact, it can also be applied to atheists as well. The principle would seem to entail that all atheists are responsible for the actions of other atheists because of their shared belied system. For example, this would make all atheists guilty of Stalin’s misdeeds.
This does seem to show the absurdity of this principle. After all, this sort of association hardly seems sufficient to transfer guilt. What is needed, it might be argued, is a stronger connection.
One such principle is that if people conduct an attack in the name of belief system X, then this is an X attack. That is, making such an attack in the name of a belief system connects all believers in X to that action.
As with the previous principle, a little consideration reveals problems. Consider, for example, those who have killed abortion doctors in the name of Christianity. By this principle, this would be a Christian attack on doctors and would thus justify not allowing any Christian structures near doctors. There are, of course, a multitude of historical examples of people committing terrible misdeeds in the name of Christianity (such as the Inquisition and the treatment of alleged heretics).
This seems sufficient to show the absurdity of such collective guilt. After all, it seems unwarranted to claim that an entire faith must bear responsibility simply because something bad was done by someone who claimed to be acting in the name of that faith. As such, it would seem that an even stronger connection is needed for guilt to be spread.
A possible principle is that if people conduct an attack in accord with the principles of belief system X, then this is an X attack. This does have considerable appeal. For example, if members of the Klan were motivated to attack black people on the basis of principles of racism, this would be a racist attack. However, it would still seem unwarranted to extend the responsibility to all racists. After all, it would be odd to say that black racists were responsible for such an attack merely because they also happened to be racists.
While the notion of collective guilt does not seem to be supported by this principle, it does seem to provide grounds for the sort of exclusion being considered. To be specific, if the attack on 9/11 was based on the principles of Islam, then it would seem acceptable to prevent a mosque from being built in the area. After all, building a structure near ground zero dedicated to the principles that caused the attack would seem to be unacceptable.
This raises the obvious question: was the attack caused by principles of Islam in a way that makes Islam responsible in a meaningful way?
Obviously, similar sorts of questions can be asked of other faiths. For example, the ownership of slaves was once justified on the basis of biblical principles. That is, Christianity was used to justify slavery. By this principle, Christianity would be responsible for the slavery it helped justify and Christian structures should be kept away from those descended from slaves. Naturally, modern Christians tend to argue that Christianity was misused to justify slavery or that changes over time rendered those principles invalid. Obviously, if Christians can avail themselves of such replies, so too can the followers of Islam.
Naturally, people tend to take the view that their own faith is not responsible for past misdeeds based on interpretations of its principle. This view is generally not extended to other faiths, of course. The failures of one’s own faith are but mistakes. The failures of other faiths are, of course, inherent to those faiths.