Park51 debate

David Bush, Opinions Contributor


This September 11 will mark the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and The Pentagon. Unfortunately, instead of remembering the dead, and reflecting on the impact of 9/11, we in North America will be privy to a disgusting display of xenophobia that will pass for public discourse.

Located in lower Manhattan, two blocks away from the World Trade Centre site, Park51 is a planned Islamic community centre and mosque. Many people are opposed to its construction, referring to Park51 as a “Ground Zero Mosque”.

The people proposing to build this Islamic community centre are not extremists, nor are they terrorists. Arguments opposing the building of Park51 include that Muslims should have collective guilt about 9/11, that Islam was responsible for 9/11, and that it is disrespectful for Muslims to pray near the World Trade Centre.

These arguments are Islamophobic and are being pushed into the national discourse by far-right groups and politicians from both parties. Those who oppose the construction of Park51 can offer only mangled facts and venomous hate speeches to explain their reasons.

The facts in this case are clear:

The property at Park51 is privately owned and the owners are legally entitled to build a mosque there. Park51 is not on Ground Zero nor beside Ground Zero. Since 2009, the building has already been used as a prayer space for hundreds of Muslims.

There is already another mosque on Warren Street, just a stone’s throw away from ground zero, closer than Park51 would be. That mosque, Masjid Manhattan, has been around since 1970 and draws roughly 1,000 people for its Friday prayers.

A strip club, called New York Dolls, exists just as close to Ground Zero as Park51. As Errol Louis of the New York Daily News recently pointed out, “the nightly boozing and lap dances do not seem to have disturbed the sensibilities of those now earnestly defending the sacred ground near the World Trade Center site.”

However, to examine this situation by virtue of logic and legalities misses the point completely. This should be understood as a debate about religious tolerance and freedom of expression. The Park51 debate, in various forms, is taking place across the Western world.

In July, France’s lower house of Parliament voted in favour of banning all face-covering veils. In Switzerland, last November, voters approved a new constitutional amendment banning the building of new minarets in the country.

The overall theme in Europe and America is fear of foreigners, or xenophobia. Supporters of regulating dress and architecture or beefing up border patrols often couch their arguments in women’s rights, protecting jobs, and the protection of secular values. These arguments don’t hold water. Xenophobic laws aren’t about justice for others or about protection secularism. They are simply about the anxieties of “non-foreigners.”

In America, the Obama administration is going to spend another $600 million militarizing their border with Mexico, a country ravaged by the global war on drugs. According to No One Is Illegal – Halifax, under immigration minister Jason Kenney Canada accepted 56 per cent fewer asylum claims.

There has also been an upswing in raids targeting undocumented migrant workers. In Canada, refugees have been subject to egregious slander, called “queue-jumpers” and terrorists. This shameful treatment of refugees by the Canadian government and xenophobic sycophants in the media is best exemplified by the treatment of the boatload of Tamils who fled Sri Lanka and who arrived in Canada in August.

Rarely do we ask why people risk life and limb to come and work in the global North. It is worth noting that people who immigrate are coming here for rational and pragmatic reasons. The countries they are fleeing or migrating from are often poor or have repressive political atmospheres.

The question we should ask ourselves is: Why? Why are there such repressive regimes and faltering economies in the global south? The answers are uncomfortable. The global economic system created through a process of western imperialism and neo-colonialism has impoverished the global south in order to benefit the rich in the global north.

When we deny the construction of mosques, the wearing of religious clothing, or debate stricter border security, we are not engaged in a reasoned discourse. All the facts won’t change a xenophobe’s mind.

However, if we are active in talking about issues of economic and social justice we may be able to get beyond racist hysteria and start to realize that by hiding behind xenophobic walls and words we are becoming a society defined by those very things.

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Dalhousie Gazette Staff

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