Tommaso Pavone: Renewed xenophobia

BY TOMMASO PAVONE

Published September 19, 2010

It’s a common perception that democracy protects and celebrates fundamental human rights, freedoms and diversity. But over the past few weeks, multiple incidents have challenged these fundamental notions. Nine years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it seems Muslims residing in democracies across the world are facing renewed xenophobia. Let me shed light on a few incidents that have taken place from France to the United Kingdom to New York City that should be of concern to all of us.

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Illustration by Madalyn Hochendoner

On Sept. 14, the French Senate voted 246 to 1 to pass legislation that bans all forms of dress covering the face — the burqa being the primary target. Now, any woman found wearing a burqa in public will face a choice between a fine of 150 euros — $195 — and a citizenship course. If it’s determined that the woman was forced to wear the veil, then the perpetrator can be fined up to 30,000 euros and face prison time. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who lobbied for the legislation, and the 82 percent of french citizens surveyed in a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll who support the ban seem to have finally gotten their wish.

Simultaneously in Britain, an Iranian mother of two, Farah Ghaemi, was in the process of packing her bags. In August, the UK Border Agency provided Ghaemi with an ultimatum: return to Iran or face deportation. She refused to leave voluntarily because Iranian police had recently raided her house and found a copy of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” and now she faced the possibility of death by stoning for what an Iranian arrest warrant termed, “propagating against the sacred system of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” But the British conservative government, elected on a distinctly anti-immigration platform, had no intention of appearing soft on immigration. Thankfully, on the very day that Ghaemi’s deportation was to take place, activists won an injunction from a High Court judge blocking her removal. So Ghaemi can breathe a sigh of relief — for now.

In New York City, a Muslim community center set to be built approximately two blocks from the ground zero site has become the focal point of a national controversy. Referred to as the “World Trade Center mosque” by political pundits and conservative politicians, many have called the project a provocation. The fact that the center was approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on Aug. 3 and that both the neighborhood’s community board and Mayor Michael Bloomberg support it didn’t seem to matter. In fact, the community board received so many angry calls — many from non-New York City residents — that it was forced to request riot police for its next meeting.

It’s well-known that minorities often feel the wrath of the majority during times of challenge. Perhaps it’s the stresses of a weak global economy combined with the remnants of the Bush era’s “us versus them” mentality that has rendered xenophobic sentiments so enticing. But as students at the University who pride ourselves as being progressive, we have a duty to critically engage these caustic issues. What kind of precedent is set by a national law targeting a specific religious dress? What does it say about democracy when a government tries to deport an individual to a repressive regime in large part because of domestic politics? And how do we reconcile our devotion to freedom and the Constitution with the public outcry in favor of dictating where a house of worship is to be built?

I don’t have clear, simple answers to these questions. However, as an immigrant first and a student of public policy and political science second, I do find these events extremely concerning for the state of democracy. And if we’re to transform these challenges into opportunities to improve society, we must fundamentally challenge our notions of democracy, freedom, human rights and equality and ask ourselves if our actions are in compliance with our ideals.

This process of self-questioning should be intrinsic to our development as democratic citizens. As students, we shouldn’t just absorb knowledge like sponges — we should strive to acquire the critical thinking necessary to help make the world a better place for everyone. And that includes people who challenge us to reconsider what we think democracy is all about.

Tommaso Pavone can be reached at tpavone@umich.edu.