Thoughts on Rand, Islam, and the Manhattan Mosque

“Without private property in land, there can be no private property right at all, and without property rights no other kind of rights are possible.”—Letter, May, 1946, The Letters of Ayn Rand

“Where did you get the money for your first payment on that property?” “By playing the New York stock market.”—Francisco d’Anconia’s father to Francisco, Francisco to his father, Atlas Shrugged, page 108

Ayn Rand was no friend to Arabs. In response to a question about Israel and the politics of the Middle East on the “Phil Donahue Show” in 1979, she said, “Israel is an advanced, technological, civilized country amidst a group of almost primitive savages who have not changed for years, and who are racist, and who resent Israel because it is bringing industry, and intelligence, and modern technology” into the region. Later in the program, she added, “I don’t resort to terrorism. I don’t go around murdering my opponents, innocent women and children. That is what I have against the Arabs.”

In this context, Ayn Rand and Pamela Geller, photogenic operator of a website called AtlasShrugs.com and a self-described, Rand-admiring “blogress diva,” appear to be in sympathy. At least since 9/11, Geller and her husband Robert Spencer have kept up a banshee’s cry against what they view as a murderous Islamic conspiracy to destroy Israel and “Islamify” America. Stoking furor over the planned construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan—as well as proposed mosques in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Brooklyn, and Staten Island—Geller has organized national media campaigns and rallies against the incursion of all “stealth jihadists” in our midst. Her website is festooned with photographs of worldwide carnage wrought by Muslims–so the captions tell us–and “raps sheets” on Arab diplomats, imams, Islamist financiers, Grover Norquist, those who criticize Israel, and American politicians and soldiers who are Muslims. Among her arguments against what she calls the “Ground Zero Mosque” (the proposed site is actually two blocks north of the former World Trade Center, on privately owned property formerly leased by the Burlington Coat Factory and damaged by falling debris from one of the planes that hit the towers) are: probable future funding by the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi families with Al Qaeda links, and other Arab terrorist groups; likely psychological suffering by families of 9/11 victims and corresponding “insensitivity” on the part of Islamic developers of the site; the chance that body parts may still lie buried on or near the building site; and “noon calls to 9/11 and jihad.” Geller approvingly quotes a radio ad by New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who said, “[If elected], I will use the power of eminent domain to stop this mosque and make the site a war memorial instead of a monument to those who attacked our country.”

Eminent domain? In the name of Ayn Rand? That would be a new low.

Fund-raising hasn’t officially begun for the Manhattan mosque. Nonetheless, Geller’s detailed reporting on possible financial links between the new owners of the Park Place site (Soho properties, owned by alleged slumlord Sharif El-Gamal) and suspect Islamic charitable organizations is provocative. It may be valuable. It ought to be—and is being—followed up by news organizations and the attorney general of New York. If laws—and there are plenty of laws to call on in the Patriot Act—are broken by El-Gamal or his backers now or in the future, Geller will have contributed to the apprehension and prosecution of criminals.

But what of Ayn Rand’s fierce commitment to individualism? My reading is that Geller wants Americans to view Muslims collectively, as a global horde, and through popular fear and persuadable politicians strip them of the rights she correctly claims set us apart from totalitarian regimes and temperaments in the Middle East and elsewhere—and are being invoked, illegitimately, she cries, to dupe the complacent among us. For example: the equal protection clause of the Constitution (forbidding states to apply laws unequally to groups or individuals). For example: the right to private property and the principle that private property is a staple of a moral social order and freedom.

The Rand of We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged convinced me of the rightness and necessity of basic property rights—one of the many ways in which her ideas altered my thinking. Geller’s opinions and prejudices reflect those of Rand in her old age. In 1974, when the novelist and thinker was 69 years old and ill, she gave a riveting speech called “Philosophy, Who Needs It” at West Point. During a question-and-answer period afterward, a cadet asked how she felt about federal treatment of American Indians, as they were then called; this was about a year after the bloody standoff between government agents and Native American activists at Pine Ridge reservation. The cadet was a Native American, although Rand didn’t know that. She answered that American Indians had been in possession of the land for five thousand years, had done nothing with it, and ought to step aside and let it be developed. “It is always going to transpire that when a superior technological culture meets an inferior one, the superior one will prevail.” She didn’t mention force, but her tone suggests that she was speaking of something other than the harmonious forces of the free market. By this time, she appears to have concluded that money alone is not a sufficient guarantor for ownership. In “Man’s Rights,” (1963), she elaborated her ideas about property. No longer is the right to property unequivocal. It is predicated on use. “It is not the right to an object,” she wrote,” “but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object.”

That’s too subjective for me. “A man holds his property because it’s his,” Rand wrote more simply to a reader of The Fountainhead in July, 1946, “—regardless of how many parasites claim that they need it more than he does.” Until he commits a crime, that goes for Sharif El-Gamal and his planned mosque.

-Anne C. Heller

Note: I plan to visit the Ayn Rand Archives as a registered user in early October. If you have a particular research question based on my book or other reputable sources, please send them to me at annecheller01@gmail.com, with AR Archives” in the subject line. I’ll report on what I find in mid-October.

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19 thoughts on “Thoughts on Rand, Islam, and the Manhattan Mosque

  1. Great post and points!

    While I’m not an Objectivist, I too agree with a right to property. And an ‘individualist’ approach would suggest that it’s both unwise and false to so broadly generalize about any group of people.

    As you know, my essential problem with Rand is her fundamental misunderstanding of Altruism… especially its biological roots and (fuzzy but real) connection to ‘natural human community size’ (Dunbar’s Number)…

    In fact, it could be argued that Ms. Geller’s reaction precisely arises out of that ‘in-group vs out-group’ dynamic which is the very essence of biological altruism and which Rand rejected as worthy of consideration… (unfortunately fundamental drives can’t be ignored).

    Ayn Rand & Alan Greenspan: The Altruism Fly in the Objectivist Ointment
    http://culturalengineer.blogspot.com/2009/10/ayn-rand-alan-greenspan-altruism-fly-in.html

    BTW, my own project… The Commons-dedicated Account is Libertarian in its essence and (I believe) a necessary foundational development for building better citizenship and governance.

    Personal Democracy: Disruption as an Enlightenment Essential
    http://culturalengineer.blogspot.com/2010/06/personal-democracy-disruption-as.html

  2. What follows is my opinion, alone. It is not meant as a rascist remark, but rather based on factual evidence. The Jews have been Jingoists throughout their history–as has been documented by many other Jews, et. al. Rand was a Jew and behaved as such throughout her life, and included only Jews, almost exclusively, among her friends and close associates. In fact, it is not unkind to suggest that she represented the epitome of the stereo-typical Jew. The Muslim extremists are certainly a threat to the western world, but we don’t need another Ayn Rand to explicate that all are brutes and beasts, and to escalate the problem even further! I don’t believe in the sign of the cross, but I also don’t believe in the sign of the dollar–that is, greed!

  3. I think that it is important to not club people in groups and blame all for the wrong-doing of a few. Clubbing people goes against determining individual merit which is what objectivism is all about.

    It also goes against the American principles of democracy and freedom and equality for all irrespective of colour, origin, religion..

    This kind of bias refelcts poorly on the country. The point about the Natives not doing anything with the land makes no sense. It is the root of all the environmental degradation we’re seeing today. The balance has to be maintained. The native people of any land treasure and nurture it and are one with it. Outsiders who come in, only exploit it for their benefit. This has happened throughout history and will continue to happen but it doesn’t make people who do not want technological advancement in any way inferior to those who want mindless development.

    The bias we show towards any people will only breed resentment which is waht causes all the rifts and the consequences of these rifts.

  4. So I don’t see the problem here from an Objectivist’s perspective.

    They already own the building, they’ve owned it for months and have been using it for months as a prayer room.

    They plan to improve the building to make a community center open to anyone, which will be an improvement over the building that stands there today.

    Until they bought the building, noone was interested in it. The building had been standing vacant for years.

    Someone want to explan the errors in my reasoning?

  5. Ayn Rand’s views not support any kind of tribalism. However, nearly everywhere around the globe the dominant ideology includes some kind of collectivism. It is not others who lump Arabs together but mostly Arabs who see themselves in collective terms. But in this they aren’t that different from Danes or Swedes or Hungarians. The ancient practice of seeing oneself as a part of some “greater” whole hasn’t yet been seriously challenged other than in some areas of American culture. Even there the idea of belonging to a group flourishes and the prominent political position of communitarianism encourages it (see the works of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor). As to the anti-Semitic tirade above, it’s vile. Reminds me of my Nazi father.

    • No, Rand’s views do not support tribalism; that is, her ideas do not support tribalism. Tibor, I am curious to know what you make of her statement that property “is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object,” if you would care to comment.

  6. Rand believed that rights are social conditions that make it possible for people to act freely–to write, worship, trade, acquire and hold stuff, etc. Only derivatively does one have a right to some object such as a car. What one has a right to is to acquire and hold and trade the car. As Rand stated, “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” (From “Man’s Rights,” The Virtue of Selfishness, hb. 124; pb. 92)

    • I know the essay. But I’m not sure I read the right to “hold” you mention into the definition I quoted. Look at the issue of land. Is land an object? Land is different from a car. It accrues value even when unused. Its uses are limitless and impossible to forecast. Most important, perhaps, it provides the basis of trade, not just the product. And so in common law the right to private property begins with a right to own land. When, if ever, in Rand’s view, does my ownership end, short of my trading it for something of equal or greater value to me?

    • Tibor wrote:

      Thanks for your interest in my take on this but I do not see any difference between owning land and a hat, no more so than between owning a parcel of land, a body of water, a piece of air mass, etc. The crucial feature of ownership is that no one may stop me from using what I own, no one may abridge my liberty to act vis-a-vis what I own as I see fit however different such use can be based on what is being owned. Of course, ownership is complex but all of it involves the liberty to act on or with what is being owned. The law of property of a complex free society sorts out the details, via adjudication and other features of the common law. (The best recent work I know on this is Timothy Sandefur, The Right to Earn a Living.)

      • Tibor writes:

        In a limited government system, confined to securing rights, eminent domain applies only to police, judicial, and military facilities (something citizens agree to implicitly by instituting government). But this is complicated; I discuss the matter in my Individuals and Their Rights [1989].)

  7. Since this is my first post on your forum, let me congratulate you, Ms. Heller, on your book, and express my appreciation for your evenhanded treatment of your subject.

    In your post, you complain that “. . . Geller wants Americans to view Muslims collectively . . .”

    I would argue and believe that Rand would hold that Geller’s condemnation of those who hold (even if only passively) the same pernicious beliefs is perfectly valid.

    Racism is wrong, not because it generalizes per se, but because it ascribes a collective moral judgment based upon involuntary, merely physical characteristics.

    Islam is ~not~ a race. It is a voluntarily held ideology which advocates the use of force to establish a theological dictatorship. (Insofar as some people are nominally counted as muslim due to their fear of the consequences of apostasy, that is only one further indictment of the creed.) Jihad and sharia are not mere accidents. They go to the essence of the religion and are the principles on which its prophet acted. It is for precisely their commonly held ~beliefs~ that Nazis and Communists and other murderous ideologues are collectively condemned. Islam doesn’t get a pass simply because it cloaks itself in ethno-linguistic and religious garb.

    Yes, men have the right to express their religion freely. But to be free is not to do what ever one wishes. It is to act without the initiation of force, whether as victim or as or instigator. Criminals and terrorists are no more free in their actions than are their victims. All main sects of Islam retain for themselves the privilege of initiating force against those they judge as heretics or non-believers.

    The burden is on those who quote the words of a murderous warrior as the basis for their faith to prove why they should not be taken at their word and be judged as the enemies of free men.

  8. Hi Anne, I sent email with a few questions for your visit to the archives but these seem central to me:

    How familiar was Ayn Rand with Adam Smith? What were her opinions on his work?

    Did she realize or address significant areas where they wouldn’t see things eye-to-eye? Limits on rights? Limits on wealth concentration?

    AND!

    Did she ever comment on the “Scientific Method” and the imperative of skepticism and the necessity for receptiveness to revision in the face of new evidence?

  9. Hi Anne, could you please share the name of the cadet who asked: “When you consider the cultural genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of blacks, and the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War Two, how can you have such a positive view of America?”

    • Jon, I don’t know the name of the cadet. This story was told by Brigadier General Jack Capps, who was a member of the West Point English Department in 1974 and who was interviewed by the Ayn Rand Institute in 1999. I quoted the interview as it appeared in the galley proofs of “100 Voices,” a collection of interviews, which has now been published in book form.

      • Ah I see. Thank you for the reference. I will follow that up.
        I cannot agree with Ayn in regard to the treatment of Native Americans. I’m certain other collectives such as the Soviet Union would have used a similar argument.
        I am borrowing your book from our local library & will buy it. Ayn Rand’s genius ought to be able to withstand analysis. I think it’s essential that books like yours are written.
        Happy New Years!

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