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The Controversy over the Muslim Community Center in Lower Manhattan: A Social Work Perspective
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The Controversy over the Muslim Community Center in Lower Manhattan: A Social Work Perspective

A Statement from
Susan Nayowith, PhD, LCSW, President and
Robert S. Schachter, DSW, LMSW, Executive Director
National Association of Social Workers, New York City Chapter

September 10, 2010

A few years ago, the president of a major university shared the observation that in the 21st century, New York City will be the city of “The Other”. He was making the point that while historically New York City has been the center for immigration, with people of different cultures and religions living side by side, the City will become more diverse than ever before. In addressing leading social workers and other providers of human services, he said that it is our collective responsibility, along with our institutions of higher education, to facilitate understanding, respect, and support.

The controversy over the location of a Muslim Community Center in Lower Manhattan, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site, underscores how difficult it is for New Yorkers to uphold the fundamental principles of an open and diverse society.

From a social work perspective, it is helpful to look underneath the question of the location of the Center and to recognize that this is an emotional issue, ranging from subtle to more overt and powerful. There is an underlying anxiety about the threat of terrorism, unhealed wounds from the World Trade Center attack nine years ago, and the fear that there will be another attack at some undetermined time and place. In fact, the news of the failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on May 1st occurred just five days before the public first became aware of a plan for the Community Center.

In times when people feel threatened, it is especially important to be clear, informed and temperate in forming opinions, especially when groups that are different from ourselves are involved. For example, it should be helpful to understand that the Center, originally named Cordoba House, is modeled on YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers, and is intended to serve the Muslim community in much the same way that these institutions serve their communities. In addition, a significant objective of the Center is to foster dialogue among communities and across religious faiths.

While most New Yorkers who believe that the Community Center should be moved to another location do not necessarily wish anyone in the Muslim community ill will, the cumulative effect of public opinion against the Center, fueled in part by politicians and the media, are likely to have serious consequences for the members of the Muslim community and other communities that feel marginalized and unwelcome in either New York or the United States. Bias attacks and hate crimes, as horrible as they are, are only the most visible aspects of this.

History is replete with instances of bias against entire communities, from ancient times to the present. Presently, there is a very strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, and this is being reflected in government policies such as police and border patrols being permitted to stop anyone who even looks like an undocumented person, New York State included.

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center nine years ago, social workers were major providers of mental health and other services to survivors, their families, workers at the site, and to communities throughout New York City. At the same time, social workers reported on the impact of the anger expressed toward members of the Muslim community and others who were believed to be Muslim simply because of how they looked. We learned of the elderly who were afraid of leaving their homes to even go shopping or to the drug store, and mothers who were very concerned about sending their children to school for fear that they would be targets.

We have good reason to believe that the continuous focus on the Muslim Community Center is exacerbating the feeling of vulnerability in neighborhoods across New York City and elsewhere. This can be expected to be the wider and even more destructive outcome. In many instances it will be hidden from public awareness.

While we believe that all New Yorkers should take these outcomes into consideration when forming their opinions, we believe that professional social workers especially need to give careful consideration to what is happening to people’s lives at this time. It is never easy to be a member of a community that experiences bias, subtle and overt racism, and/or anti-immigration fervor. Add to that the perception that your group is responsible for aiding terrorism, and we have a greatly compounded set of circumstances affecting people’s lives. All of this piled on top of the challenges most of us face of making ends meet, maintaining employment, obtaining health care, or raising a family.

Social work educators, program administrators, supervisors, clinical social workers, and community organizers all have a role to play to assist those who are most vulnerable, especially when they are experiencing the effect of bias against their community. People, whether individuals, parents, children, the aged, or whole communities, need to be able to speak about what they are experiencing. Social workers across the City can help facilitate genuine dialogue and create an environment where people can feel supported and safe.

We welcome comments about this statement and are interested in hearing what social workers are doing to address issues relating to the Muslim Cultural Center and the impact of the controversy on clients and communities.

We also wish to thank Madelyn Miller, LCSW, Chair of the NASW-NYC Disaster Trauma Committee for sharing her thoughts and insights about the Muslim Cultural Center and the wider community. They helped shape the above statement. The Disaster Trauma Committee will meet on Friday, September 24 from 9 to 11 AM at the Chapter Office at 50 Broadway. It will be the 9th Annual 9/11 Anniversary Reflection and Remembrance Meeting, and will include a focus on the Muslim Community Center. To RSVP, please call 212-668-0050


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