How Debates About Legitimacy and Technical Standards Can Mask Islamophobia

I stumbled upon an article today about an incident from Australia where “a community centre which also facilitated Muslim prayers” was denied a planning permit. The post in its entirety can be read here, but the following quotes from the article caught my attention:

What hurt most was the open vindictiveness displayed by objector neighbours who were passionately against having this centre in their backyard.

At times the objections bordered on hysteria, I still have them in my file – “these Muslims celebrate something called Ramadan where they slaughter animals on site”, “I am followed by Muslims who want to steal my credit card details” And then there is the hysteria that connects extremism around the world with the establishment of an Islamic centre. That somehow if an Islamic centre were established it would produce a wave of extremists that would destroy the community. This is the sort of hysteria thrown up with attempts to establish Islamic centres in Camden, Perth and more recently in Doveton and Monash. (…) Sadly what does hold sway are incidences of double parking, blocking of driveways, and excessive noise. That is sad and indefensible. (…) And yet it is easily reversible by exemplary behaviour stemming from humility and sincere concern for the plight of God’s Creations – people and the environment. “

Though I respect the sentiment, and do agree with the point that faith centres should think about how they are helping the greater whole, there are two issues here that require a closer look.

1) The Discourse of Legitimacy

Communities are not on trial, and planning systems are broken if Muslims must prove they are not associated with terrorism and extremist views before planning permits are granted. It points to a troubling power dynamic at work.

Frequently though, communities are being asked to do so.  When I wrote my Masters project, I learnt about how in the UK, protest against the proposed Abbey Hills Mosque (or the ‘Olympic Mosque”) culminated in an “anti-mosque petition” on the Prime Minister’s website that ultimately over 281,000 people signed (Dehanas and Pieri, 2011). From the time journalists began reporting on the Abbey Hills Mosque in 2005, coverage about the project focused on ‘foreign’ sources of mosque funding, the changing identity of Britain and connections between mosque organizers and terrorist groups (Dehanas and Pieri, 2011). In later years, government officials and organized groups described the project as a “national level identity and security threat” (Dehanas and Pieri, 2011, p. 807). Until organizers withdrew from the mosque project, who was applying for planning permission and not simply the details of the project, was a topic of widespread public debate. This project, while famous, is not alone.

2) Technical Standards Hide Racism

Because planning laws do not stipulate that projects can be denied simply because a dominant group doesn’t like Muslims, those who oppose the development of mosques propose them as a “spatial concentration” of Muslims who create difficult “problems” (Gale, 2008, p.30).  This trend is observable in numerous studies where researchers  have found that the attention paid by dominant groups to the parking, design, traffic and overall approval of particular mosque projects is exceptional.

In my project I spoke to this point:

“Specifically, opponents to mosques claim that mosques serve people who do not live in the area, diminish property values and create noise and parking problems among other issues. In other words, planning discourse is mobilized to make dissent acceptable. Gale and Naylor’s (2002) study of Preston and Leicester for example, describes that when immigration in these cities increased significantly and “non-Christian places of worship” were first built in the 1990s, the objection arose that parking would be inadequate and proposed designs were incompatible with their surrounding area (p.392). On some occasions, residents expressed design and traffic as related concerns by claiming that ugly religious architecture would lead to traffic accidents (p.394). Gale and Naylor (2002) characterize parking requirements and traffic laws as a “frequent stumbling block for religious groups seeking planning permission” that are deployed to disguise racist beliefs (p.393). In other cases, a failure to gain approval often happens when technical standards are applied strictly and “neglect to take account of possible differences in the attitudes of communities to their spaces of worship” (p. 393). (Pasta, 2012, p.7)

This last point, points to the fact that technical standards are fluid and are as much of an art as a science. The appropriate number of parking spaces, appropriate noise levels, how traffic studies are conducted, all of these things change depending on your methodology. I conducted interviews to learn more about parking for instance, and found that parking for faith centres is not calculated in the same way across the Greater Toronto Area. For this reason, vastly differing parking standards exist. In addition, standards might have developed without thinking of the needs of a diverse population (ie- a building of a certain square footage may hold more people if they are sitting on the floor instead of on chairs) and therefore, even existing parking standards require updating.

In other words, it is a myth that planning is neutral and rational and that technical standards alone can be relied on. Even in cases where standards have seemed sound and projects have met the necessary requirements, protests occur to ignore these rules. In 2011 for instance a proposed mosque development in Markham, Ontario was the target of intense citizen opposition when a group called Markham Citizens for Responsible Community Planning organized to overturn planning permission for the Markham mosque.

In sum, Muslims should strive to practice the principles of community relations and strong neighbourhoods that exist within Islam, but striving against injustice and righting wrongs are important Islamic principles too. In many of the cases involving mosque conflicts, both of these approaches are needed.

Sources:

Dehanas, D., Z. Pieri. (2011). Olympic proportions: The Expanding Scalar Politics of the London ‘Olympics Mega Mosque’ Controversy. Sociology, 45(5): 798-814.

Gale, R & S. Naylor. (2002). The spatial politics of ethnic minority expression in British cities and towns. Ethnicities. 2(3): 387-409.

Gale, R. (2008). Locating religion in urban planning: Beyond ‘race’ and ethnicity? Planning Practice and Research, 23(1): 19-39.

Pasta, S. (2012). Faith in the City: Deconstructing the Ideologies that Underpin Mosque “Conflicts”. University of Toronto. Master of Science in Planning Current Issues Paper.

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