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Opinion: History shows going along to get along often does not work

Mark Chapman
Mark Chapman

Mark Chapman is a 36-year career journalist and is NancyOnNorwalk’s editor.

When the race riots of the 1960’s were in full swing, I used to hear a lot of adults – well-intentioned people who supported anti-discrimination efforts – talk about how the black community was going about it in the wrong way. The blacks were just alienating people with their marches, their rallies and speeches, and that’s why people were expressing such anger toward them that often escalated to violence.

Later, after the Stonewall riots in June 1969, people began to say similar things about the gay community. In 1987, Act Up was formed and participated in a number of disruptive acts to call attention to the AIDS epidemic. People – including me – complained that the group’s actions went too far, that the group was hurting its own cause by angering the rest of the population.

The civil rights movement and the ACT UP push for AIDS awareness were ultimately successful, although some hatred and resentment lingers against both communities. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community is making great strides in gaining civil rights and acceptance.

But, as the Jewish people have found throughout history, there will always be hatred and acts of bigotry and even violence against some groups.

That brings us to Norwalk’s mosque issue, and the all-to-frequent comment, “Why would they build a mosque where they aren’t wanted?”

Indeed, why would the blacks want to go into hotels and restaurants where they aren’t wanted? Why would they try to sit in the front of the bus? Why would the Jews want to move to Scarsdale in the 1950’s? Why would gay people want to live openly in society?

Scarsdale, today a heavily Jewish village in Westchester County, N.Y., was rife with antisemitism before the Jewish people made a stand and moved in. They suffered for it, but today the wealthy community could be a model for municipal success with its non-partisan style of government, low crime rate and highly rated, cutting-edge schools.

The gay community is achieving equality and acceptance all over America despite the stragglers who continue to believe the Constitution is only for people like them, that their interpretation of the Bible should be the law of the land. But, despite changing laws and mainstream acceptance, members of the LGBT community are still being murdered, beaten, harassed and discriminated against.

The black community is still subject to disparate treatment based on old stereotypes and current social conditions. Yes, we know the old argument – the Irish, Italians, Greeks, and, more recently, Latinos have come to this country and suffered the indignities of discrimination. But there’s a difference – those people came to this country of their own free will and made their own opportunities. Blacks were kidnapped, brought here in chains and treated like animals. They were the only people specifically made less than whole in our founding documents (three-fifths of a man). Still, blacks are achieving – much to the chagrin of some – on a high level in business, in science, in government. And still they are subject to violence and harassment, as described by attorney and NAACP President Darnell Crosland and state Rep. Bruce Morris Thursday night in a meeting at City Hall.

Now it’s the Muslims. West Norwalk is fine with a mosque in the city, just not in West Norwalk. Why West Norwalk? Why not out by the highway, or on the proposed BJ’s site, or West Avenue, or Wall Street? Someplace where all the out-of-own visitors can enjoy all the delights Norwalk has to offer, people say. Go to prayer, grab some dinner and hit a SoNo bar? Friday night family worship, followed by, what? A mechanical bull ride?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But really, folks. The Al Madany Islamic Center is not unlike the St. Matthew Church – just lots smaller. St. Matthew lists on its website 2,400 families as members. An Al Madany source told us recently the Islamic Center has 100 families in its membership, and there are, he estimated, 500 Muslim families in Norwalk. They walk amongst us, just like the Catholics, the Protestants, the Jews, the atheists, and the gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgenders and Italians and Greeks and Irish and Russians…

When I traveled the hemisphere for the Boston Herald, I often found myself in the midst of hordes of Americans on cruise ships who treated every foreign port like it was a Disney attraction. Most seemed to forget that, aside from the obvious tourist attractions catering to our expectations of what, say, Mexico was supposed to be like, the people we encountered were normal people doing normal things that, to someone from small-town middle America, might seem different, and, therefore, exotic.

Ride through Amish country in Pennsylvania and see what happens when you gawk at families in their carriages, or try to take their pictures. They are not there for your amusement, they are living their lives.

Maybe, like with many churches in many communities all over America, Al Madany Islamic Center imply wants to have its place of worship in a peaceful, bucolic setting, not on a busy road surrounded by commercial buildings and tourist attractions. Maybe, as it was suggested to us by one member of the center, because there are only 100 member families and maybe 500 Muslim families in all of Norwalk, the center is not expecting hundreds of daily visitors – not when the families are busy living their lives, not when there is a mosque and Stamford and another in Bridgeport.

Maybe the Muslim community is thinking that, once the neighbors see that there is little difference between the mosque and any other church – save for the Islamic architecture – the neighbors will calm down and accept them, or at least peacefully co-exist. Maybe they believe in the innate goodness of the people in Norwalk, accept that the vitriol is born of the natural aversion to development in any neighborhood coupled with the fear of the unknown.

Or maybe they simply see how people around the country react to Muslims since September 2001 and decided to make a stand, to take advantage of the legal system and a law originally designed to allow large Christian churches to be built despite neighborhood opposition.

Whatever the reason, acceptance is in the hands of the Zoning Commission (which negotiated the deal alongside the lawyers) and the Common Council, and some have questioned whether the city officials have the “spine” to stand up for West Norwalk.

Perhaps the question is does it take more spine to support the decision for a mosque that will serve about 100 families on a regular basis, and save Norwalk taxpayers millions in legal fees, or to support a West Norwalk neighborhood’s quest to block the mosque, a neighborhood that will likely express its unhappiness in the next local election?

Perhaps the answer is that each city official will do what he or she believes is right for Norwalk.

Comments

8 responses to “Opinion: History shows going along to get along often does not work”

  1. anon

    @Chapman, it’s the traffic. Can Nancy on Norwalk post the traffic studies for a decision affecting all of Norwalk. Norwalk is a deliberately diverse community and proud of it. Traffic has nothing to do with discrimination, and everything to do with good planning.

    FOR EXAMPLE:

    There are 16 mosques or Islamic centers in 16 cities in the State of Connecticut. The Fillow street location will be the largest in Connecticut, 5 times the size of Stamford’s.

    In comparison, 145 Connecticut cities have Catholic churches, many having more than 1. Norwalk has 5 Catholic churches. Stamford has 16.

    54 Connecticut cities have synagogues, many have more than 1. Norwalk has 4. Stamford has 7.

    This mosque is a regional destination. What happens to West Norwalk, yes. What happens to Connecticut Avenue and Route 1?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @anon

      We will check into the traffic studies.

  2. Scott

    l and most don’t have a problem with someones choice of worship. What most of us have a problem with is the scope of the project. For it’s size and location and projected patronage there are legitimate concerns. If any one of us wanted to build a similar structure on a similar sized parcel I doubt it would pass zoning. Build a reasonable structure that fits the surroundings. Everyone wants to throw St. Matthew’s into the comparison. Well someone should put scale drawings side by side and see which one people think fits the neighborhood better. If the Mosque really wants to make a statement why didn’t they try to build in one of our affluent non-diverse neighboring communities? Why, because Wilton, Westport, New Caanan and Darien would make them scale down their design or outright deny the permit. Instead Norwalk is falsely accused and strongarmed into issueing a permit with cash on top of it all. That is really why it sickens the majority of tax paying citizens of Norwalk. They are the bullies not us.

  3. EveT

    Trying to understand the headline “Going along to get along…” in the context of the article.
    What you are saying is that if minority groups that are traditionally discriminated against just keep quiet and don’t try to “go where they aren’t wanted,” the discrimination will continue — is that right? That a minority needs to stand up and challenge the ingrained discrimination by intentionally “going where they aren’t wanted” or else things will never change?
    If so, I agree that is a valid point.

    Editor’s note: Yes, that is the point.

  4. Oldtimer

    Anon
    For the record: Norwalk has 7 Catholic Churches
    St Mary, St Joseph, St Thomas, St Ladislaus, St Philip, St Jerome, St Mathew. Most of them had schools where the teachers were nuns.
    It is hard to tell how much of the neighborhood objection to a mosque are based on real concerns about traffic and parking. It sounds like some people think the mosque will be 24 hr, 7 days a week operation, drawing capacity crowds all day, every day. With a very limited knowledge of muslim practices, that does not seem likely. Even the most devout will need to support themselves with full time jobs and will likely gather at the mosque at times that will not conflict with public school traffic.

  5. Jeff

    I agree on most things here but the opinion expressed undeservingly marginalizes those with valid safety and traffic concerns by implying these items are nothing more than a mask behind Islamic intolerance. Nothing could be further than the truth. I think a mosque would be a good thing in the area but the size and scope of this would undoubtedly be enough to double or triple the size of the existing 100 families it serves. Build it and they will come, then what . . . double lanes on Fillow?

  6. Malcolm Y

    Nice piece. “Go where they are not wanted, to break the discrimination.” Ok, than why isn’t Al Madany locating in Westport, if that is the motivation? Upside, local businesses will get a boost with the FBI opening a branch office in Norwalk, agents need to eat, sleep and lots of coffee and crossiants for those long surviellences and mechanics to keep all the undercover vans running. And maybe internet will get faster with NSA putting Norwalk on the hotwire do “listen/record all calls/emails/cookies” list. Course the timing leaves allot to be desired. ISIL/ISIS/IS radicalisim and doctrine to convert all and exterminate all infidels with great prejudice, of course creates a major public relations challenge most 5th avenue pr firms will cringe at and wont touch. Anyway, welcome muslims, FBI, NSA. Maybe the chief needs more than one MRAP now. Never know, one of those radicalized American fantatics training and fighting in Syria, Iraq and even Libya and Yemen may find their way to Norwalk on a mission to spread the good word of the book/scroll/tablet/tora and convert us all, or else. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and crazies with guns, whatever their faith, ethicticity, political affiliations, vegan or carnivore. Muslims dont have the market cornered on crazies, they come in all shoe sizes and colors. And you reading this, yes you, probably know at least two crazies, no? Are they muslim? Catholic? Jewish? Buddist? Pagan? “Don’t know” you say, “just know they are crazy”, ah, I see.

  7. Suzanne

    Your implication is that people in West Norwalk have problems with Muslims, just like with gays and Stonewall, blacks and the civil rights movement. You are wrong. As if it needs to be repeated, the building is too large for the site, the traffic configuration too dangerous. This may have complied with all Zoning requirements of Norwalk but this belies the fact that Norwalk Zoning is woefully behind in capturing even a vague nuance of what is safe and what is not. I find it interesting that you are so willing to criticize. Like many others, I would welcome a mosque here – just like the other religious denominations welcomed in West Norwalk IF the proper amount of land had been secured by Al-Madany at a safer location. It is not a Muslim issue, no matter how much you would like to make it that (antisemitism in Scarsdale, really?) I would not welcome an apartment building, school, office building or whatever built entity you can imagine at this site – it is steep, exits into a dangerous intersection (maybe you should try driving it) and actually probably had the best scaled building already on it with the single family dwelling. I really resent the implications of this article: trying to raise anti-Muslim fervor? It will not work – yes, people are afraid of what the media projects and what has happened in the Middle East and on September 11th. These are called “factions” of a religion and have nothing to do with most practicing Muslims. You don’t think people in West Norwalk get the difference? It is NOT a religious problem. It is a wrong-development problem. Your article just foments a NIMBY attitude that does not exist.

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