Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah recently gave a reasonably strong defense of the construction of the Cordoba House Muslim community center, saying that “if the Muslims own that property, that private property, and they want to build a mosque there, they should have the right to do so.” He spoke further about the importance of religious freedom in American society, noted that plenty of Muslims were killed on 9/11, and called Islam a “great religion.”
Hatch’s statements weren’t without problems (I’ll get there in a moment), but given the pathetic silence of most of the Republican establishment in the face of the increasingly open, intense and virulent anti-Islamic sentiment emerging in American political life, I think it’s important to recognize when someone is willing to cut against the grain and stand on principle, especially when doing so entails political risk. So, for the most part, bravo Mr. Hatch.
My one quibble might seem a bit semantic, but I think it’s a symptom of a larger problem in the way Muslims are represented and thought about in American society. Hatch, when asked about the high level of public opposition to the Cordoba House project, said, “there’s a huge, I think, lack of support throughout the country for Islam to build that mosque there, but that should not make a difference if they decide to do it… I’d be the first to stand up for their rights.” Again, the overall sentiment expressed here is as admirable as it is underrepresented in contemporary discourse. Hatch’s reference to “Islam” in such agentic terms, though, threw me a bit. He speaks of Islam as though it is not only a unified school of thought, but a relatively unified organizational body, one that is capable of strategically directing mosque placement as one might move pawns on a chessboard. I’m sure Hatch was just using verbal shorthand, but that’s the point. People conditioned to think of “Islam” as a unitary entity in the mold of, for example, the USSR or even international communism will be much more susceptible to thinking of Islam as inherently dangerous. Though Hatch seems to have avoided this trap, at least in its ugliest manifestations, his word choice is telling.