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Park51, Planning and the Freedom of Religion

As planners, we are accustomed to (and expect) some types of urban development proposals to attract controversy. Whether the opposition is to new roads, higher-density housing or undesirable land uses such as industries or prisons, such controversies are becoming far more common as environmental, economic and social issues become more pronounced and widely understood. In most cases, we generally assume that we can make use of a suite of engagement strategies to engage stakeholders and try to resolve typical development conflicts. 
Michael Dudley | August 17, 2010, 11am PDT
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As planners, we are accustomed to (and expect) some types of urban development proposals to attract controversy. Whether the opposition is to new roads, higher-density housing or undesirable land uses such as industries or prisons, such controversies are becoming far more common as environmental, economic and social issues become more pronounced and widely understood. In most cases, we generally assume that we can make use of a suite of engagement strategies to engage stakeholders and try to resolve typical development conflicts. 

However, the nationwide debate over the proposed Islamic community center at 45 Park Place Manhattan is unprecedented, and well beyond any local development controversy with which any of us have likely dealt. It will surely stand as one of the most significant land use debates in modern planning history – and not at all because of the substantive planning issues involved or the actual merit of the proposal. Rather it will be a landmark debate in terms of how it has been cynically politicized, and how the effects of this manipulation will ripple across the country. While it clearly shows the extent to which 9/11 is a still-open wound, at the same time, it has also exposed a dangerous undercurrent of vitriol, paranoia and racism which threatens to contaminate American society and political discourse for years to come.

Like so many politicized issues, this debate is characterized by virulent and highly misleading rhetoric. The proposed project, the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center is not a mosque, and it is not "at" Ground Zero. It will feature multiple uses, and it is several blocks away, with no view of the WTC site. According to the project website, Park51 is

"dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet...Park51 will grow into a world-class community center, planned to include the following facilities:

  • outstanding recreation spaces and fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court)
  • a 500-seat auditorium
  • a restaurant and culinary school
  • cultural amenities including exhibitions
  • education programs
  • a library, reading room and art studios
  • childcare services
  • a mosque, intended to be run separately from Park51 but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and our New York community
  • a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all."

On its merits, this would seem an excellent project for the area, and an exciting reuse of a building that has otherwise sat vacant for 9 years since it was damaged on September 11th 2001. What has transformed this debate beyond the scope of any previous municipal planning issue is not only the raw emotions still felt from the 9/11 attacks, but the extent to which these are being used by the Center's opponents to stoke fear and hatred of a minority group. Stephen Salisbury, author of the recent book Mohamed's Ghosts writes on TomDispatch that:

"The mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it's about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation's psyche. The mere presence of Muslims at prayer is now enough to trigger angry protests Those opposing the construction of the center in New York City are drawing on what amounts to a decade of government-stoked xenophobia about Muslims, now gathering strength and visibility in a nation full of deep economic anxieties and increasingly aggressive far-right grassroots groups."

Salisbury points out that the anti-mosque movement has spread beyond Manhattan to Tennessee, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Illinois as well as Brooklyn and Staten Island, where mosque proposals and permit applications are being met with angry protests. The extent of this opposition is so extreme that there are calls for an outright ban on such construction: Bryan Fischer of the influential conservative organization the American Family Association stated that "permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America."

This is clearly getting out of hand, and dangerously so. Places of worship being violently opposed and vilified could easily lead to acts of terrorism. Indeed, we have already seen such this past May in thefailed pipe bombing of a mosque in Jacksonville Florida. If present anti-Muslim rhetoric continues to escalate, the consequences could be deadly.

The United States of America was built on multiple freedoms, among them the freedom of religion. Communities of faith need places of worship, so campaigns aimed at denying the right of an established faith to provide for their community through building should be seen as intolerable and condemned.

We must guard against religious bigotry in land use decisions. It may be too late for planners to have much influence over the fate of the Park51 proposal, but we could well see the poisonous legacy of this debate infect our own towns and cities. It is incumbent on planners to defend the rights of American Muslims to plan and build for their growing communities, so that they may be free to practice their faith in places of worship like any other Americans -- as the Founding Fathers intended.

 

 

 

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