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Why opponents of the Golders Green mosque must mind their language

The rhetoric from some of the critics of the planned Shia centre is Islamophobic, plain and simple, says Laura Marks

    The Golders Green Hippodrome will house the new Islamic centre
    The Golders Green Hippodrome will house the new Islamic centre

    I only have to hear the words "Golders Green Hippodrome" and my eyes light up, thinking back to fond memories going to the annual pantomime there with my Grandma and Grandpa Nathan. 

    It’s a place we all know and love, but one that is causing a lot of controversy in the Jewish community and beyond.

    By now, most will be aware that the iconic venue has been bought by the Centre for Islamic Enlightening and is to become a centre for the Shia Muslim community in north-west London.

    As with the opening of anything that will bring a considerable amount of new people to an area, there are valid concerns. We all know that parking in Golders Green is a nightmare at the best of times, and all have worries about more congestion, pollution and noise.

    But in among the petitions and lobbying against the new centre there is a use of language, and a strength of feeling, that makes me feel this about something more. It’s about fear of "the other", and specifically fear of Muslims.

    Would we have the same outcry if this were to be a new synagogue or a Christian community centre, as indeed the Hippodrome once was?

    Reading some of the comments on various chat groups by those opposed sent a shiver down my spine.

    Comments such as “we don’t know what they are preaching as its all in Arabic”, “this will result in violence and terrorism” and “there is a chance of infiltration of bombers” are Islamophobia plain and simple.

    Going through the public forums – not to mention what people are saying in private – and it actually feels even more sinister still. The language being used is simply not right.

    I am chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the power of words is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) 2018. It has never seemed more fitting.

    Whether it’s Donald Trump on Twitter, or the overt racism and antisemitism we see from the far right and far left, our discourse has taken a turn for the worse.

    People seem to forget that language can make a difference – both for good and evil.

    We know from our own past how language has been used to fuel hatred. We know too how more recently in Rwanda, people were encouraged to think of the Tutsis as "cockroaches" – as a deliberate way to increase division. Language has been mis-used by other evil regimes in subsequent genocides, and as Jews we always need to be very aware of this.

    I wouldn’t for one moment suggest we are using Nazi language, but we must recognise the danger of what we say and how that fuels mistrust, separation, prejudice and hatred.

    Words have an impact upon us all and those around us. Which is what worries me so much about this campaign.

    Yes, parking is an issue – especially when picking the kids up from school or getting supplies for Friday night from Sainsbury’s. But too many of the objections are based around stigmatising "the other" and repeating misguided concerns over “Sharia Law” or “Jew-hating Muslim terrorists”.

    In this case, there is an even greater sense of distance as this is a small subset of the Muslim community who we Jews haven’t had much interaction with before.

    I know rabbis in the area, from Alyth Reform and Golders Green United, as well as Mitzvah Day’s interfaith chair Daniela Pears, have tried to meet with the Centre for Islamic Enlightening. This being a very busy and holy period for both our faiths, and it is taking time. The local church is also playing a role bringing us all together to reach out to the new Centre – building stronger bridges between diverse local faith groups with a common goal.

    I am sure that as we get to know our new neighbours, we will find we have so much in common. Jews should be leading the welcome for Muslims into the area – rather than being tempted to engage in the rhetoric.

    We have a similar experience of opposition and prejudice, a similar focus on family and festivals and, as I’ve seen through both Mitzvah Day and Nisa-Nashim, the interfaith group for Muslim and Jewish women, a similar wish to make the world a better place specifically through working together on a shared agenda.

    Finally, I want to recall one more experience outside the Hippodrome.

    I was part of the Golders Green Together Campaign a few years ago, led by Hope Not Hate, where I stood with colleagues and friends of all faiths and backgrounds supporting the Jews of the area against attacks and antisemitism.

    Surely now it is our turn to give our new neighbours the benefit of the doubt and a warm welcome.

    Laura Marks is the chair of Mitzvah Day and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

     

    This article has been amended at the request of the author 

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