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First off, thanks to the High Commissioner of India in Ottawa for hosting celebrations of India’s 63rd anniversary of independence from Britain yesterday. Here’s a pic from the event, courtesy of Frank Scheme:
In private celebration of the anniversary, I re-watched Gandhi and did some additional reading on the circumstances of Indian independence. Some of you might be interested in this critical appraisal of Gandhi’s role, by Richard Grenier.
Today, on the other hand, we celebrate two unrelated anniversaries. First, it’s the 33rd anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Weirdly, I remember the exact moment when I heard his death announced on the radio. I was ten years old and playing in my brother’s bedroom (which was always cleaner than mine).
In Other News
Now, on a totally different topic, I’m sure many of you have heard of the plan to build a mosque on private property in lower Manhattan, near the site of “Ground Zero”, where the World Trade Centers came down on September 11, 2001. For the obvious disappointing reason, this has become a controversy, fed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.
Fortunately, President Obama has spoken out in favour of religious freedom. Mayor Bloomberg has inspiringly stated that the building of this mosque is one of the most important tests of democracy in the USA, or something to this effect. Despite these views, hatred and anger abound, as in this site.
Others have recently piped up to accuse the founder of the mosque to be in favour of certain seemingly undesirable principles, such as the promotion of Sharia law.
Frankly, the way I see it, it really doesn’t matter what the intent of the mosque is. The fact remains that it’s a place of worship to be built on private land, and the Bill of Rights gives each citizen the right to build such a thing. So the mosque must have legal licence to be built.
That doesn’t mean that other citizens aren’t free to voice their displeasure, discontentment and perhaps even suspicion. That, too, is the nature of democracy. But they certainly do not have the right to demand that the mosque not be built in the first place.
An interesting comparison is between the building of the mosque and the publication of those Danish cartoons way back when, the ones that portrayed Mohammed in an unflattering light. A lot of readers took exception to my post back in 2006, in which I attempted to analyse the publishing of the cartoons via a set of ethical axioms. To summarize, I maintain the right of freedom of expression under the law. But it’s valid to ask the intent of the expression for the purposes of formulating a response.
Similarly, the law does and should defend the right of the mosque founders to build their place of worship. But it’s also fair game for critics to question and discuss their motivations… without calling for the limitations of their rights under the Bill of Rights.
Fareed Zakaria put it best, in a recent interview with Charlie Rose. He said something to the extent that the Bill of Rights is innately an anti-democratic document, as it should be. The Bill protects the rights of the individual, even when the majority is incensed. So both Bloomberg and Obama are correct in their characterization of this crisis as a test of the resilience of the US Constitution –for my money one of the greatest achievements of human civilization– and particularly the Bill of Rights, which is in essence the first ten amendments of said Constitution. Failure of the Bill to defend the construction of the mosque may indeed signal the crumbling of the heart of the US social contract, the set of beliefs that truly made America into the shining city on the hill.
What our neighbours to the south eventually decide –both in terms of law and in terms of their behaviours and words– will inform us of the content of their hearts, and will tell us if they have indeed left the Bush days of exceptionalism, xenophobia and irrationalism behind them.