Thursday, June 11, 2009

Building mosques as economic strategy

Globe article makes for some thought-provoking reading: it details how Prince George, BC is building a mosque and Islamic cultural and educational centre in the hopes of luring in the high-skilled workers it desperately needs.

Interestingly, this comes at a time when some citizens of the western world – in a decade likely to be defined by 9/11 and the sudden economic downturn near its close – are being taken in by the dark side of xenophobia and anti-immigrant finger-pointing (see this week’s European Parliament election results).

While it was undoubtedly in the works for some time, Prince George’s announcement dovetails nicely with Barack Obama’s recent
overtures to the Muslim world. His message of peace – eloquently quoted from the Koran last week – was no doubt expressed also in the hopes of achieving not just social objectives, but economic objectives: in this case, economic stability, improved trade and access to markets, and an end to the costly and controversial military conflicts that continue to rage through many Islamic regions of Africa and Asia.

The likely role that Prince George’s mosque will play in its future might also bear some comparison with the role the
Winnipeg Central Mosque (or WCM) plays in the West End neighbourhood’s development. Open in 2004, the mosque is a resource and prayer centre for the local Muslim community, which must be quite large if the crowds that can be seen coming to and leaving the centre are any indication. The WCM, along with the Halal food shops I also see opening up in the neighbourhood, likely represent both a sign of and a draw for local and immigrating Muslims.

While Winnipeg continues to face its own significant skilled labour shortages, there is also hope that the WCM, along with other West End developments, represents a new wave of community pride in the neighbourhood, which many suburban Winnipeggers may have long written off as lost to prostitution and crime. Along with neighbours such as the Ellice Café & Theatre, the Black Sheep Diner, and the new West End Cultural Centre, the WCM is one of a number of growing spaces of vibrancy in an area long characterized by its pockets of vibrancy.

If Prince George’s strategy works to its benefit – and I think it will to some degree – this will only fuel the debate over what religious, cultural or artistic investments a city or region can make to successfully lure and then settle new migrants to ultimately benefit its own economy (take note,
Richard Florida).

Governments of course have a long-running preference for investing in large "bricks and mortar" type projects that have more finite, predictable, and mathematically-derivable estimates of economic impact than something more indirectly beneficial like a mosque. Of course, those same "bricks and mortar" projects usually bring in office drones who extend the morning Tim Horton's lineups even further down the street but who, like clockwork, quickly desert the neighbourhood to the shadows a moment after 5 pm.

Maybe building mosques and other types of community centres is a better strategy for developing thriving neighbourhoods and healthy economies.

Photo: Istanbul's Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was built between 1609 and 1616. It is renowned for its more than 20,000 handmade blue ceramic tiles and six minarets.


Stimpson said...

I think building another centre for the practice of big-guy-in-the-sky superstition is, on the whole, a bad thing. Surely there are other types of cultural centres, other than a mosque, that would have served the same purpose of attracting workers. Then let those who move to the community build their own house(s) of worship, with their own money, if that's their desire. Government should stay out of the religion business.

Prairie Topiary said...

Good comment -- I definitely share your discomfort with the idea that our governments should sanction any particular form of spiritual or religious belief. I'm a strong supporter of the state remaining as secular as possible. After all, if one religious community gets funding for its pet project, then why shouldn't another? If we build a mosque, will we then have Scientologists, Raëlians, and Moonies all lining up for their share of government dough?

At the same time, is there room for exceptions? Some government program dollars have gone to support the St. John's Cathedral, now a Provincial Heritage Site. Independent (private) schools, including those with religious affiliations, receive support if they meet curriculum and other provincial requirements. Many publicly-supported Aboriginal programs have spiritual components or mandates. These are worthy causes, as they go to support not just personal beliefs, but such things as preservation of heritage, promotion of culture, education, mental and physical health, job finding, rehabilitation and reintegration into society, etc. -- all things that society as a whole has a stake in. As I understand them, many mosques perform many or all of these functions.

Certainly, there are a wide array of entirely secular community centres that deserve support -- I don't mean to argue that mosques should automatically receive support as a general rule or over other types of community centres. In a perfect world, I'd prefer that we all shared the same resource centres as one big happy family. For some communities, though, the local religious institution may be inseparable from the local community/resource centre and it may also be a prerequisite for community growth and health. In such cases, I think providing some public funding merits consideration.

Stimpson said...

PT, I'd say there should be no room for exceptions. The cathedral you mention got money to preserve a heritage site, not to preserve or promote a religion. Private schools, especially those created to indoctrinate kids in superstition and ignorance, are completely undeserving of public money. Aboriginal programs with "spiritual" mandates are also undeserving, IMAO. Teaching children (and adults) their cultural heritage (e.g., by relating myths) is one thing; teaching them the supposed rightness of unfounded beliefs in gods is quite another.

Whether you call it religion or spirituality, this atheist is against using public money to propagate it.

RC Johnsen said...

I would think that if we can have Christian churches we can have mosques. It's only fair and I used to believe that Canada believe stalwartly in fair play.

I do like to watch "Little Mosque On the Prairie". Probably I'm one of very few. I like to see the interaction of friendly people working out their differences and becoming part of the mosaic of Canada.

Our mosaic, under the governance of Harper "I like America TV better..." and the opposition? of Ignatieff who is truly Americanized and not really much of an intellectual, we are beginning to segregate by not trusting others profiling people by race and political stance more and more.

RC Johnsen
Wpg, Canada