This September 11th 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 its impact, we in North America will be privy to a disgusting display of xenophobia that will pass for public discourse.
The point of contention is Park51, a planned Islamic community centre and mosque, located in lower Manhattan two blocks away from the World Trade Centre site. Its opponents sometimes refer to Park51 as the “ground zero mosque.”
The facts in this case are fairly clear. The building is privately owned and the owners have a right to build a mosque there. Park51 is not on ground zero or beside ground zero. Since 2009 the building has been used as a prayer space for hundreds of Muslims.
In fact there is a mosque on Warren Street, which is actually just a stone’s throw away from ground zero, closer than Park 51. That mosque, Masjid Manhattan, has been around since 1970 and draws roughly a 1000 people for its Friday prayers.
The people proposing to build this Islamic community centre are not “extremists” nor are they terrorists. Those who oppose the building of Park51 are saying that Muslims should have collective guilt about 9/11, that Islam was responsible for 9/11 and is disrespectful for Muslims to pray near the World Trade Centre. These arguments are Islamaphobic and are being pushed into the national discourse by far-right groups and politicians from both parties. Those who oppose the construction of Park 51 can offer only mangled facts, venomous hate speech.
However, to examine this issue solely through the lens of logical argument is to miss the point completely. This should not be understood as a simple debate surrounding religious tolerance or freedom of expression. The Park51 debate, in various forms, is taking place across the Western world. This past 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. These 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 dollars militarizing their border. Thanks to immigration minister Jason Kenney et al, Canada is set to accept 30% less refugees than last year. There has also been an upswing of raids targeting undocumented migrant workers. In Canada refugees, have been subject to egregious slander as queue jumpers (logically there can be no queues for refugees) 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 those who come to Canada, or America or France are coming here for very 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 debate mosques near ground zero or the wearing of religious clothing or 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 by hiding behind xenophobic walls and words we are becoming a society defined by those very things.