The first time I was introduced to the hallowed ground of the World Trade Centre in New York was during my US State Dept visit in 2008. As we travelled down West Street, our guide pointed across some wasteland and shouted in his brilliant New Jersey accent “There’s Century 21!”.
For the unitiated, this is a department store with top labels at bottom prices. There was some great shopping to be had. Some real bargains I’m wearing still on a regular basis. But the rubble he was pointing over was clearly the WTC site, which went unmentioned. I should also add that one of the best kebabs I’ve ever had, or kabobs as they call them over there, was from a stall on the north-east corner of site. It was halal, but let’s not open another flank of attack for the US loony right.
When Mayor Bloomberg made his fantastic speech in front of a glorious backdrop of the Statue of Liberty a couple of weeks ago, it seemed over the top for such a senior politician to have to go to such lengths on a simple planning application. Still we thought, this should draw a line under it. Never underestimate the forces of hysteria and bigotry though.
One of the things that impressed me most during the visit to the US was the commitment from both left and right to uphold religious freedoms. Much early immigration to the US was from communities fleeing religious persecution in Europe so it was built into the foundation of the country to guarantee the state would not intervene in matters of faith. This is at odds with the models of secularism practised in countries like France who will regulate things like clothing. It is therefore extremely sad to see this whipped up hysteria.
I personally know Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam at the centre of the controversy. I first came across him through his wife Daisy Khan, whose organisation we were introduced to by the State Department on the aforementioned visit. To the GOP throwing round the now all too predictable accusations of extremism, this introduction and visit took place during the George W Bush era.
I’ve no doubt that given their trackrecord of interfaith work that the proposed Park 51 centre will be the community hub that it’s aiming to be. The mosques that we visited across the US during the 3-week trip were on the whole infinitely more outward looking and vibrant than their UK counterparts. I know there is a distinction between mosques and community centres, but many of the masjids we visited had sports halls, first class educational facilities and even health care available.
The truth is though that mosque applications always court opposition wherever they appear now. The Park 51 episode is just the pinnacle of it. In the UK the usual covers for complaint are traffic management and ecological issues.
There was one very curious case in Glasgow recently where an Islamic organisation and sent mailings to local residents attempting to put their minds at rest about their plans to take over a local hall. Except it seems someone had actually forged the organisation’s letterhead and there were no such proposals. Nevertheless, residents got het up and a the local shop began a petition against it. Sections of the community wanting to whip up anxieties for their own nefarious ends are not just confined to NYC.