Friday, September 3, 2010

Public opinion and the Manhattan mosque

On Wednesday, BYU's Daily Universe ran a letter to the editor written by William Sheppard, a student from New York City. Sheppard made a fascinating argument about the Manhattan mosque controversy using a spatial/proximity topos. After telling us that he grew up eight miles from Ground Zero, he argued that

"My opinion and its eight miles should carry much more weight than the 900 miles between [Newt] Gingrich and this mosque, or [Harry] Reid’s 2,565 miles and especially [Sarah] Palin’s 4,336 miles."

According to this reasoning, public opinion--like exposure to radiation--should intensify or diminish relative to the distance from the business.

So what do the folks at the issue's Ground Zero think about the (two blocks from) Ground Zero mosque?

The NY Times polled New York City residents about the proposed community center and mosque and discovered that two-thirds of the residents would rather it was constructed elsewhere, even while they support the building in principle. I thought this bit of data was particularly provocative:

"Sentiments about the center appear to be heavily shaped by personal background and experiences. Those who have visited mosques or have close Muslim friends are more likely to support the center than those who have few interactions with Islam."

From a rhetorical standpoint, the "few interactions" describes the weakness of gauging public opinion from public opinion polls. (You're at the dinner table, a drumstick of fried chicken in your hand, when the phone rings. The person on the other side asks, "Do you support the building of a mosque at Ground Zero?") The end of public discourse ought to be judgment--in other words, an intelligent, ethical answer to the question, "What should we do?" We cannot come to such judgment, according to publics theorists, without what Hauser calls "vernacular" deliberation, the kind of back and forthness in which different perspectives have a chance to brush up against each other in a contest of good reasons.

What would such a deliberation look like in respect to the building of a mosque near the gravesite of over 3,000 victims of Islamist extremism?


  1. Because I study the Middle East (I minored in Arabic) and have lived in both Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, the mosque issue is perhaps a bit of a bigger deal to me than to others. However, I think that a lot of support for and opposition of the mosque lies in the principle of the building and perhaps not actually in the building itself. For example, the other day I was talking to my sister about the mosque and the issues that are surrounding it. She was opposed to its presence because of information she had read about partial funding for the mosque coming from the Iranian government and connections the main man promoting the mosque had with radical Islam. Whether that is true or not remains to be discovered, but I think the point made above about "sentiments about the center" being related to personal experience is true. Most people have no desire to research the facts behind the mosque (my sister majored in political science so she is an exception to the rule) but would rather argue for or against the principle of it. Does anyone else have this opinion?

  2. I agree Breanne. We are a very opinionated society without informed opinions. I've come to that harsh reality about myself on many issues, and have had to curb my zeal towards an issue until I understood more fully its implications.

    I disagree with the submission by the student to the Daily Universe about the Mosque being solely a "New York" issue. If I believe in the protections the Constitution guarantees, shouldn't those guarantees be applied everywhere in the United States? Any infringement of a right anywhere in the U.S. is a violation of national law. The effects of Sept. 11 also were not limited to the city of New York. There were family members on the airplanes that came from many other states, as well as workers in the Pentagon. There were family members who worked in the Twin Towers that didn't live in Manhattan, but in other surrounding states. Perhaps there were even traveling businessmen and women who were in the Towers that day on assignment who live all the way across the country. To claim 9/11 as purely a New York tragedy is inappropriate. Were the attacks on Pearl Harbor purely a Hawaiian tragedy?

  3. I thought this was an excellent article.

    I think we as LDS need to think twice about our support or disapproval of the mosque, especially before we complain about how difficult it is to build chapels or temples in places where public sentiment about Mormonism isn't so hot.