On Wednesday 25 August, a broad coalition of community and religious organizations formed to express community support for the building of the Park51 Mosque in lower Manhattan. Called New York Neighbors for American Values, they came together to respond to the shrill and intolerant rhetoric swirling around the proposed building of a Mosque in downtown New York.
The so-called “Mosque debate” is polarizing local politics, with the Republican candidate for Mayor using his opposition to the Mosque to try to win popular support in the upcoming elections. The public taunting of Islam has been in the news in several countries recently. In Australia, opposition to Muslim schools and an attempt by politician Rev Fred Nile to “ban the burqua” have sought to blur the link between Islam and extremism. Similar debates have occurred in Europe.
Given the lessons in Power in Coalition, the coalition that has formed in reaction to this debate is likely to be a short-term alliance. It is a “come one, come all” coalition – where any organization that is prepared to publicly signal their support for religious tolerance, and therefore the building of a religious institution, is invited to join.
This open coalition structure is fit for the purpose of providing a community response to a hostile political environment. Indeed, it is of critical importance to have multiple faith and secular voices on this issue to ensure that the Muslim community in New York, and indeed, in the United States, is not isolated. This broad based community response will be critical in the lead up to the Mayoral elections in November.
However, for the long term, and if and when this issue goes to city council, a tighter and more formalized coalition alignment may be necessary. As established in Power in Coalition, come one, come all coalitions frequently struggle to make decisions around complex strategy. A likely step would be the establishment of a steering committee of a few key organizational players in the coalition that make decisions on behalf of a broader network of organizational and individual supporters. This is how the Toronto case study in Power in Coalition overcame the limits of an open coalition. But even then, the challenge will be the extent to which the groups can build strong trusting relationships that respect the specific needs of the Muslim community at the heart of this dispute as well as the broader civil rights values that need to be protected.
As the story unfolds, it is again clear that coalitions between community-based organizations are a vital strategy for articulating a progressive community voice. And consequently, why it is important that in this political environment we understand the lessons of how and when coalitions can be successful.