NYC Mosque & Collective Responsibility


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.

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  1. I admit there are complex issues surrounding ideas of collective guilt, however Mike you have misunderstood the relationship between thought, belief and intention here.

    It is not just that the attackers happened to believe in Islam, they believed that they were carrying out the attack in the name of religion, that their actions were deeply religious and represented the highest level of spiritual attainment within Islam. There actions are no more secular than praying.

    The analogy with catholic child abuse is therefore fallacious. While church authorities may have covered it up, there is nothing in Catholic teaching, nor Christian teaching that would support it. The priests never acted in the name of Christianity. The same is not true with the hijackers on 9/11.

    However, what is the significance of this? Difficult to say. For the Muslims who wish to build the mosque may well have disowned the militancy with Islam. Why then should they be punished?

    In the end, I think its up to the people of New York, if they don’t want it, then that is how it should stand. The prima facie case of Islam’s role in the attack is a strong one, whatever caveats are raised. However, this view (letting the people decide) might raise questions about religious freedom and secularism. I would ask, how are questions of new building normally decided? Does public interest have a role to play? If it does, then this would be a warrant for letting New Yorkers decide.

  2. I am concerned the “mosque at Ground Zero” story is just a media beat-up. Isn’t the proposed site two blocks away? Does that really count as Ground Zero still? Furthermore, is the mosque being built deliberately in reference to 9/11, or is it being built by a community of Muslims for worship and just happens to be nearby to Ground Zero? Answers to these questions would help me decide whether I thought reaction against it appropriate or not.

  3. I question the whole project, because it should be one of common sense. Muslims should understand that no one wants a mosque near a site where Islamic people, extremist or otherwise, carried out an attack that killed thousands of American civilians and caused massive devastation. I’m sure this wasn’t the only site that could have been chosen for their mosque.

    Given the fact that Feisal Abdul Rauf has ties to terrorist organizations, it should be pretty plain that this is a politically motivated move meant to incite anger and to be a slap in the face to victims, family members of victims and America in general. These Islamic extremists aren’t just going to blow people up. They’ll use psychological warfare as well. This would be a good way of saying that our system is so screwed up that we will allow our enemies to build shrines on top of places where they murder our people, discrediting the American way of life, which is one of their agendas.

    If an extremist Christian group announced that they were on a Crusade against heathen Muslims and blew up the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, killing thousands of Muslims and doing enormous financial damage to the city, do you think they’d let a Christian church be built anywhere near the area?

  4. Would the presupposed idea that a Muslim country wouldn’t allow a church to be built near a hypothetical Christian-based attack site justify not allowing a similar, though reversed, situation in a different country?

  5. Brad, your argument about Malaysia is completely wrong. It’s the same type of argument a child would employ—’I won’t share my toys because I know he wouldn’t share his with me.’

    Also, Feisal Abdul Rauf doesn’t have connections with terrorists—I believe he simply refuses to call Hamas a terrorist organization, something that many people also refuse to do.

    And Michael, simply letting the people of New York decide is completely wrong. If a person or group owns the land and they are not doing harm (and I mean legitimate harm, such as poisoning the air or water), what they do on that land is their business. This group has every right to build the Cordoba House.

  6. Well, not necessarily Paul. The system in the US is completely different. It’s meant to illustrate the differences between the US and authoritarian countries where Islam holds dominance. I was trying to be clever by putting it that way but what I meant by it was that only in America would this even be an issue. That’s exaggeration, obviously, but I’ll go ahead and spell everything out for the benefit of people like Jared, who commented below you.

    In an Islamic country, common sense would be enforced and there wouldn’t be a need for public debate. Muslims are taking advantage of our system and the willingness of Americans to kneel down to and make excessive allowances for any ethnic or religious group to try to make a mockery of us by building this mosque as close as they can to this site.

    Jared, your argument is just like a child’s, immediately resorting to name-calling without using the gray matter between your ears to think about what I meant first. If you’re not sure, have the common courtesy to ask in a polite way, like Paul did. I hope you have a severely unpleasant experience involving monkeys.

    The fact that Feisel is a terrorist sympathizer is good enough for me to throw him in with them and consider him a terrorist, or at least a potential one, as well. It’s a really small step between having a belief and acting on it. Even if he hasn’t done something in regards to committing, supporting, or propagating the ideas of Islamic terrorism he has the potential to and is likely to, based on his previous actions. That makes what he’s doing highly suspect.

    Is there really any good reason why this mosque couldn’t be built somewhere else? Out of respect for the thousands who died in that attack? Or do thousands of deaths and the feelings of fellow citizens of New York City mean nothing to these people? They want Americans to start respecting them and stop maligning them, but they seem to have no problem walking all over the memories and pain of thousands of victims, survivors and family members.

    Do they have a legal right to build the mosque there? Sure. But, the religion of peace should also have a moral obligation to be good neighbors. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, despite the overwhelming desire of New Yorkers to have that mosque built somewhere else. This is definitely a deliberate attempt to spit in the eye of America. The shock of 2001 is wearing off, so it’s time for salt to be rubbed in the wound to remind Americans of what happened.

    Part of being in America and being an American is adhering to the ideas and values that America stands for. While I’m not saying that everyone has to have Christian values, everyone should have the common decency to respect each other and to respect a site where thousands of people died in an act of aggression against our country that entered the United States into almost a decade of warfare and further loss of life.

    If they do go ahead with their plan to build that mosque there, I hope they plan to watch it every hour of the night and day because I doubt it will get by without at least being vandalized by distraught people whose mothers, fathers, siblings, or children died in those towers.

    Before anyone maligns me, I’ve got nothing against the average Muslim. I’ve lived in a Muslim country for a few years and I have Muslim friends. I just take issue with extremists and with people taking advantage of the system to make a mockery out of the dead. It’s disrespectful and should be stopped.

  7. I would have thought a ‘Christian’/’Muslim’ attack would be one approved by the recognised authorities of Christianity/Islam. But both religions disapprove of physical violence – though they are not wholly equivalent – and seek to change hearts (this is then modified by the just war/jihad theory). I think the comparison of some commentators on 9/11 above would be more like calling violence by Branch Davidians a ‘Christian attack’. America should be encouraging Islamic input into its debates.

  8. And the decision to name this building “Cordoba House”, of all the possible name choices, has no bearing whatsoever on the argument? And the fact that as a culture, Islam is predominantly intolerant toward other religions and cultures is equally irrelevant?

  9. Ken Muenstermann

    Excellent thought-provoking article. I would, however, add another step: If a plain reading of the authoritative texts of X (Q) promote attacks like those seen on 9/11, and the historical pattern of those within X who hold to the authority of Q is to exhibit such behavior toward “infidels,” then one can say with reason that 9/11 was an X(Q) attack. The question then becomes: Will this proposed ground-zero Mosque house those of the X(Q) sort?

    The authoritative texts of the Roman Catholic Church (P) strongly promote the sanctity of the human being and Christian sexual morality. A priest who sexually abuses a young person is in gross violation of P.

    The authoritative texts of all orthodox Christian faiths (NT) teach submission to civil law, prayer for enemies, and leaving vengeance to God. Someone who claims to be a Christian and yet kills an abortionist is in violation of NT.

  10. I Think until the points raised by Emily July 28th are clarified, and additionally those who wish to build this structure have explained, why they choose this spot, then it is not possible to comment fairly on the matter.
    However from an emotive viewpoint I would have thought that anybody of any class, ethnicity, or creed or what you will, possessing common decency, good taste, and a feeling for the hopelessness that others are no doubt still experiencing, would be shy of erecting a structure near or upon the location of genocide, where those responsible for the genocide, would have wished to worship.
    If I went to live in Dresden Germany would avoid favourable mention of ‘Bomber’ Harris who orchestrated the genocide which occurred there in WW2. Certainly I would not seek to establish some sort of appreciation society for him there. All that, notwithstanding the fact that I might think he was an all round good chap, who did the right thing at the right time.
    This is not a matter of right and wrong but one of common decency which we should endeavour to express to friends and foes alike.

  11. I have muslim friends and am glad that I live in a nation that is so “tolerant” of other religous groups. Having said that, what possible “positive” impact could the muslim community think that they will achieve by building this mosque in a site that is already creating such turmoil and outrage in the USA. Simple respect for the American community would say do not build it here. I can only guess what the reaction would be to building a christian church, or jewish church near a muslim holy shrine in Mecca. If the Muslim community truly wants to do something that may have a positive impact, then perhaps a public and universal condemnation of the actions of Islamic extremists that have caused a massive ditrust of the Islamic and Arab communities would be in order. I keep waiting to hear that in the news.

  12. Hmmm. This article ( links Rauf with Wahhabism, which is the austere and intolerant form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. It’s the sort of Islam that reformists like Irshad Manji and Tarek Fatah are trying to reform. I wonder what Manji and Fatah would have to say about all this.

  13. That article does help to clarify a few matters, though I still wonder about a few particulars mentioned above. I have to say, if the article is correct, a large Wahhabi mosque near to the site would be a grave insult. I was thinking that the people of New York were being unnecessarily harsh on the Muslims, but if those Muslims are part of the more extremist Wahhabi strain, they would appear to warrant little sympathy.

    Mike L’s words above do provide an intriguing breakdown of one argument. I would say that many different groups broadly classified under one religion, should perhaps not be. The Muslim extremists responsible for the 9/11 attack, for example, interpret various elements of holy text differently to other Muslims. This causes their beliefs to be quite remarkably different; thus, they should not be treated like other Muslims who could be far more tolerant of others. Though they are Muslim, so could be classified as such alone, they should be as a minimum treated as a separate party for which the main body of Islam is not responsible.

    The Catholic priests who were child molesters can be treated similarly: as individuals who were acting outside of their Church, who had ‘gone rogue’ and were not sanctioned by the main body. If these people can be defined in groups such as these, then even the ‘principle that any misdeed by a believer in X would be the responsibility of all others who believe in X’ could perhaps be recognised as a fair argument, so long as X referred to a particular group and not the whole. For example ‘the misdeed by a paedophilic priest would be the responsibility of all other paedophillic priests. This is by no means perfect, but perhaps it is an advancement on the above analysis.

    You have to realise that with people who like philosophy, it helps to ‘spell it out’ first time round. Otherwise they set upon you like hyenas, pointing out where there could be controversy and so on.

  14. Have a peek at this article FOR building the Mosque: ‘’. It might help to clarify a few matters. I still think that building it there is probably not a very good idea; depends on how many Muslims would be benefitted by the project. I’m guessing they shouldn’t be said to be ‘benefitted’ if they end up joining an extremist group.

  15. I agree that guilt by associate is absurd, and I’ve gone back and forth, personally, a million times about this mosque. I love the Constitution, so anything going against it, I struggle with. But I sympathize with those living in NYC who endured, suffered, and possibly got sick because of these attacks and see how it can be viewed as a slap in the face.

    The only issue I have with the approach of the article is that it ignores the basic foundation of the religions. The Quran contains at least 100 verses that call Muslims to war with non-believers and actually calls Muslims who do not hypocrites and warns of eternal damnation. In Christianity, it does not call priests to rape little boys and it certainly does not call people to bomb abortion clinics or persecute heretics.

    Just sayin’….I have no idea whether or not it should go there. I do know private citizens bought that land with their own money. But out of respect and decency, maybe selling it is the best bet (in a perfect world), or possibly building a memorial (in a perfect world). But it is 2 blocks away….what will be an acceptable distance for people not to be offended.

    I think it’s a very slippery slope we’ll start down if the government actually makes a decision on this.

  16. This may be a very simplistic viewpoint, but I like simple things. I assume some members of the lunatic fringe of my family committed the most terrible atrocity in the next town to me and I am completely horrified at what they did and have great sympathy with suffering caused. I can think of nothing worse than after a period of time I decide to open another one of my shops, in that town, with the name of the offending family above the door and my self and other family members doing business therein. Yes we ‘could smile and smile, yet still be villains’ -A corrupted quote from Hamlet.

  17. Hey I love your style I will subscribe for your feed please keeps posting!

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