Friday, August 27, 2010

Mosques and Immigration

I expect most people here will have heard of the controversial 'Ground Zero Mosque' (in quotes because it is none of those things) in New York. If you haven't, the quick version is that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has plans to open an Islamic community centre in an abandoned coat factory two blocks from the site of the World Trade Centre. This community centre, called Park51 (name changed from Cordoba House after that reference was wilfully misunderstood) will contain pretty much everything you'd expect from most American community centres, plus a prayer space. A prayer space is not a mosque... but that, and its proximity to the WTC site, was enough for it to be referred to as the 'Ground Zero Mosque' and kick up a nation-wide rain of hellfire.

The arguments against it boil down to it being 'insensitive' or even outright 'offensive'. The more bigoted people go so far as to say that it is 'Islamic Triumphalism', that it is a monument to the Muslim 'Victory' of 9/11. The more quiet criticism says that the intense emotions felt around the issue are in and of themselves a reason to rethink the project, perhaps move it. That it wouldn't be right to cause the anxiety and force victims to re-live the horror. This is the position of the Anti-Defamation League, in a widely-criticised decision. To quote:
The lessons of an earlier and different controversy echo in this one. In 1993, Pope John Paul II asked 14 Carmelite Nuns to move their convent from just outside the Auschwitz death camp. The establishment of the convent near Auschwitz had stirred dismay among Jewish groups and survivors who felt that the location was an affront and a terrible disservice to the memory of millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Just as we thought then that well-meaning efforts by Carmelite nuns to build a Catholic structure were insensitive and counterproductive to reconciliation, so too we believe it will be with building a mosque so close to Ground Zero.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of 'offensiveness'. There is a point to thinking critically about this, as the mere fact that something is 'offensive' is, in my opinion, no reason to ban it or even decry it. There will always be someone who will be offended by any given thing. Neither can you reason by majority; that is, you cannot say that something can be banned due to offensiveness because the majority deems it necessary -- this will leave minorities without a voice. While individual action can and should take care of issues of sensitiviety and offence, offensiveness in and of itself is a poor metric to govern society.

Far more important -- and the real rub -- is harm. We do not frown on racism because it is offensive -- we find it offensive because it causes harm. Real, measurable societal harm in the way that it keeps particular social groups from full and unconditional acceptance in society. Racist language is a marker of racism and thus offensive. So the offence can be tied back to a particular harm. Meanwhile, if we are to call on people to adjust their behaviour due to this harm, we enter into a complex policy web. Rights and freedoms must be balanced against the harm and ultimately, we must choose the path of least harm. This frequently involves there being no law imposed, only social sanction. In all cases, we must carry out this balancing act.

In the case of Park51, I can fully understand how it can be offensive. That is no secret -- Islam is widely seen as responsible for the 9/11 attacks, so the building of an Islamic community centre (much less a Mosque) is of course able to cause offence. However, does this offence mean that it is wrong to build Park51 where it is? Should it be moved? We should carry out the balancing of harms.

At one level, the harm in moving is minimal. There are many other sites the centre could be moved to, including one that was made available specifically as an alternative. However, those other sites are not suitable for the purpose of the centre. It is, first and foremost, there to serve a community. At its current location, it is in the middle of a large Muslim population, one that has few places to pray. It serves a legitimate community need, one that would not be served by moving it away.

Furthermore, it would be forced to move for no reason other than offence... and offence caused by (at best) ignorance or (at worst) bigotry. The fact is the Islam did not attack the US on 9/11. The bombers were motivated as much by base human political will than religion, no matter their religious protestations, just as the Crusades were more a land-grab than a religious war. Furthermore, this particular community centre is headed by a priest from the Sufi sect, by far the most moderate of Islamic divisions. To say that this group is 'linked' to 9/11 is like saying that the local student socialist club is 'linked' to the gulags.

The moderate (or even leftist) protests all focus on that offence as if it existed by itself, as a construct that had no cause and no interest, without consiering that the offence is only there because of ignorance and/or bigotry. In reading a new article about this today, I was reminded of what I wrote yesterday about Gillard's defence of people who felt concerned about 'border security'.

To be sure, these two issues do differ in one great respect: there are reasons to be concerned about immigration in general and asylum-seekers in particular that are not rooted in bigotry, while I see none related to Park51.

However, twice now I have personally experienced the meme that immigration from non-English-speaking nations is something that causes 'concern' in the community, that the nation is not 'on board' with opening up the country to people from other cultures, because there's really no way of telling how our culture will change as a result. In these conversations, no racist terminology was used, and the speaker was calm and apparently reasonble.

In both cases, my response was the same: that such concern is by its very nature xenophobic. That if the community isn't on-board, it's because we haven't done a good enough job of getting the community behind it. That the response should be to redouble those efforts, not to curtail non-white, non-anglo immigration. That we should never permit racism or simple xenophobic 'concern' to dominate our policy discussions and that we certainly should never allow it to set policy.

As an immigrant myself (from a white, English-speaking background) I see no reason to deny this privilege to others based on their cultural background. Of course our country will change. Our culture will change. Countries always change, cultures always change. We are, I will remind, far more affected culturally by American TV and movies than we are by immigration.

I hear snippets of this argument (though not fully-articulated) from talking heads on TV... there were occasional whispers that might have been dog whistles during the Q&A Population Debate, but they were too brief to tell. I worry that this might be more wide-spread. I fear it is, given that the two people I spoke to used idential language, which tells me that it is a meme that exists in the wild.

I see it -- as I see the ADL's defence of the Park51 opponents -- as nothing more than giving legitimacy to xenophobia.


  1. The immigrant horde thing is crap anyways. We take some few thousands of immigrants every year, a paltry number when per-capita comparisons are made to other Mighty Whitey nations (Canada, most of Western Europe). We can and almost certainly should take more people. Security and border control are important, sure, but screening on the basis of culture/race/religion - now THAT is offensive.


  3. Haw, nice picture.

    Yeah, the thing I always see absent from immigration/refugee/population debates is a sense of perspective. Numbers are thrown around without anything to judge them against. When you see someone throwing around big numbers without saying what they mean, you can be pretty sure that that person is trying to conceal something.