Guelph public meetings reveal xenophobic side of gurdwara opponents

As the fuss/tantrum/tumult over the Muslim community centre in south Manhattan, or "Ground Zero Mosque" to its opponents, continues, Guelph's Sikh community's recent attempt to build a new gurdwara has found strikingly similar opponents.

Significant numbers of the gurdwara's opponents' racist mentality and conflating tactics display significant parallels to the divisive rhetoric surrounding the Manhattan centre. There are distinct parallels in the mentality in which the arguments are forged and how the proponents are framed. Despite Canadian portrayals as more tolerant and without a War on Islam, sorry Terror, when it comes to Sikhism the same accusations and complaints are lodged.

The Guelph Sikh Society recently received planning permission to build a new temple in the south end of the City despite significant negative reaction. They plan to replace their existing space, a converted beer store, with a new gurdwara on a major road backing directly onto a residential subdivision begun in the last 10 years. The gurdwara's opponents have been careful to frame themselves as neighbours or taxpayers, and have resisted local media attempts to label them with the simple tag of racists, fearful of any people of colour in their neighbourhood. Just as the community centre in Manhattan has seen reaction from those who cannot fathom a community of diverse people, sharing a common space, the Guelph project has seen opposition which is inherently racist and fails to fathom the fact that Sikhs have formed a significant part of Guelph's community for some decades.

One quasi-public meeting was hosted by the succinctly named "Stop-the-Temple" group. The meeting was attended by a couple dozen neighbourhood residents and an undisclosed number of local citizens (including the myself) who came as a result of the meeting's advertised claim (subsequently acted on) that the press would be barred entry.

At the meeting there were assertions that the Sikh community is part of a conspiracy with local developers and that the local municipal council is in cahoots, an assertion not unlike the ones faced by the developer in Manhattan but on a more global scale. Just as the centre in Manhattan has been construed as a forward base for foreign influence the Guelph temple was construed as a headquarters for regional Sikhs (laughable with the temple's modest size) and the first step in a massive influx of population. That either community is just addressing a shortage of space within their current location is in neither case ever entertained.

Both the Guelph gurdwara and the community centre are designed to offer community space in areas which are not already over served. Although the Islamic centre added the prayer room later in its development, the Guelph gurdwara was from the outset designed to serve both a community and religious purpose. The oppositional rhetoric in both cases inflates the bogeyman of prayer space in the buildings.

The rhetoric opposing the Muslim community centre refers to it as a mosque, negating to note that the prayer space is interfaith and only a minor part of the plans. In the case of the Guelph gurdwara, an acknowledged prayer space, the calculations done by its opponents have attempted to include the entirety of the building. They suggest that people will be praying in the lobby, the bathrooms, the closets and the kitchen. This is farcical. But just as in Manhattan, Guelph is burdened by those who refuse to accept that the religious centre of a minority is not a beachhead for cultural invasion. At a Guelph City Council meeting one gurdwara opponent showed just how he viewed the development. Commenting that the decorative style of the gurdwara was not in keeping with the rest of the neighbourhood this opponent stated his opposition to the domes which he referred to as "turrets."

Although the Muslim community centre in Manhattan has many community amenities built in it, it continues to be viewed mistakenly as an exclusive centre. The idea that it could actually be a community centre simply run by a religious group (like the YMCA) is implicitly denied because to the opponents Muslims are inherently not part of the public the way Christians are. Similarly in Guelph numerous opponents claimed that the gurdwara should be located in a different neighbourhood because it wouldn't be "useable by the whole community" as one letter to council put it. The idea that somehow a neighbourhood needs to ghettoize by religion before it may build a temple actually reinforces the exclusion of immigrants. Ironically, many opponents of the temple claim immigrants supposed decision to self-exclude as the reason for their opposition.

In both cases location issues came to the fore. The community centre, two blocks away from Ground Zero, is presented as too close. Why would peaceful Muslims place a "mosque" so close -- ask supposedly unbiased opponents. But they have conflated Al-Qaeda and an entire religion as if it was Islam that attacked. Similarly in the case of the Guelph gurdwara, Sikhs were openly asked, at a city council meeting, why they would want to situate a gurdwara in a community that didn't want them. The argument that "peaceful Muslims" should show due reverence and locate elsewhere is not unlike the Guelph situation where opponents were "concerned" that the Sikh community should rather build elsewhere and were just picking a site without proper consideration for the neighbourhood. Building bridges to a community is in both cases thrown out as an option at the planning stage.

The Muslim Canadian Congress's stance to oppose the Manhattan community centre has interesting parallels with the Guelph case. The MCC has given in to the idea that it is too pushy to place a Muslim community centre so near ground zero, conceding to a point of view which sees Muslims as a suspicious in New York. Similarly, despite a very much white-dominated planning culture which rarely sees ethnically diverse groups at public meetings, a number of people of colour came out to oppose the gurdwara's location, arguing that the temple should follow what other religions practiced by racialized immigrants have done and locate in an industrial area. Some talked of how their desire to push the Sikhs out of their community to the opposite corner of the city showed how much they cared as they found an appropriate place to put the Sikhs.

The assumption that the positioning of a Sikh place of worship should follow the Canadian norm of locating in an industrial area is supported by the precedent of ostensibly professional and unbiased planners. That is planners who have managed to understand that a church is not a religion factory but not until quite recently do the same with minority faith temples. At the "Stop-the-Temple" meeting an opponent, with a notably thick accent, commended a proposed placement of the gurdwara in an industrial area near English as a second language classes. That the Sikhs who are immigrating come from Commonwealth English-speaking nations was lost. Opponents attempted to portray the Sikh community, in much the way Manhattan's Muslim community was, as one made up of solely recent immigrants.

The experience of the two cases shows how much racialized fear continues to exist in both small and large liberal cities of North America. They also show that even if a minority has been in a community for longer than their opponent that is no protection from racialization and the smear of foreignness. In both cases the body in charge of the planning decision has made the enlightened decision and accepted the reasonable proposals before them. In both case they now face appeal. The challenge now is for those who are anti-racist to make sure that such smears and farcical accusations do not trample attempts to physically embody the diverse communities we usually only have the ability to support in principle.

Leif Maitland grew up in Guelph but now studies planning in Toronto.

Further information:

Guelph gurdwara vandalism attack condemned.

More on the opposition to the gurdwara here, here and here

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