In Pittsburgh, a Turkish group, pious but peaceful, decides to rethink its plans for an Islamic centre after an angry public hearing. In Clitheroe, a town in northern England, a plan to turn an ex-church into a mosque wins planning approval after seven failed bids. In Austria a far-rightist, Jörg Haider, grabs headlines by proposing that no mosques or minarets should be built in the province of Carinthia, where he is governor. In Memphis, Tennessee, Muslims manage to build a large cemetery despite local objections to their burial customs.
On the face of it, there is something similar about all these vignettes of inter-faith politics in the Western world. They all illustrate the strong emotions, and opportunistic electoral games, that are surfacing in many countries as Muslim minorities, increasingly prosperous and confident, aspire to build more mosques and other communal buildings. All these stories show the way in which whipped-up fears of a “clash of civilisations” can inflame the humdrum politics of a locality.
But there is a big transatlantic difference in the way such disputes are handled (see article). Although America has plenty of Islam-bashers ready to play on people's fears, it offers better protection to the mosque builders. In particular, its constitution, legal system and political culture all generally take the side of religious liberty. America's tradition of freedom is rooted in the First Amendment, and its stipulation that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” Another recourse for embattled minorities of any kind is “Section 1983” of America's civil-rights legislation, which allows an individual who is deprived of a legal or constitutional right to sue the official responsible.
More important than the letter of the law is an ethos that leans in favour of religious communities which are “new” (to their neighbours) and simply want to practise their faith in a way that harms nobody. In America the tone of disputes over religious buildings (or cultural centres or cemeteries) is affected by everyone's presumption that if the issue went to the highest level, the cause of liberty would probably prevail. (MORE)