Some Muslim groups seeking to build mosques to accommodate their growing numbers of followers are encountering vehement opposition in communities across the nation.
In some cases, the conflicts are similar to those that for decades have pitted residents against expansion plans by large churches. Neighbors in communities from New Jersey to Arizona have protested Muslim groups’ proposals for mosques by raising classic “not-in-my-backyard” arguments that have focused on the sizes of planned buildings, parking, lighting and other factors that can affect property values.
But the debates over mosques in several U.S. cities during the past two years occasionally have led to name-calling and allegations of bigotry — a reflection of some residents’ mistrust of Muslims since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by radical Muslims.
Last year in Voorhees, N.J., a suburb of Philadelphia, a Muslim group’s proposal to turn a commercially zoned building into a mosque led anonymous critics to distribute fliers that warned residents that extremists “with connections to terrorists” might worship there. The fliers also claimed that the mosque run by the Muslim American Community Association, a group of about 15 families, would attract hundreds of worshipers for prayers five times a day.
After local churches and synagogues joined the Muslim group in denouncing the allegations, some residents raised objections about the parking, traffic and landscaping plans, says the Rev. Melanie Morel Sullivan of the Unitarian Universalist Church in nearby Cherry Hill, N.J. Sullivan’s congregation organized a multifaith coalition to help the Muslim group.
Some of the mosque’s critics “got media savvy,” Sullivan says, because most residents didn’t believe the mosque would pose a threat. The critics “realized they weren’t gaining any media points by saying things like, ‘The mosque would harbor terrorists.’ They maintained there was no prejudice and that some of their best friends are Muslims.”
In November, members of the local zoning board unanimously approved the mosque plan after their attorney told them that there was no legal reason to reject it.
Zia Rahman, a Voorhees resident since 1979, led the quest for a mosque and says he has no ill will toward his neighbors who fought the plan. “We are all part of the same community,” Rahman says. “There is so much that they did not know about this religion. The mosque will promote deeper understanding.”
The Muslim Civil Rights Center in Hickory Hills, Ill., has received several recent reports of opposition to planned Islamic centers, says Ahmad Tansheet, the center’s community outreach coordinator. “It’s kind of new after Sept. 11,” he says of the heightened tension. “We don’t have statistics because it’s something new. I hope ultimately it will die down.”
Even before the attacks, building a mosque in America “wasn’t the easiest thing” to do, says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group in Washington, D.C. Now, he says, it can be more difficult. “Usually there’s a lot of talk of parking and traffic and other things that are sometimes seen as a smoke screen for the real issue,” Hooper says. “You’ll also get overt bigotry coming to the surface.”
Muslims increasing in number
The new conflicts over mosques come as Islam is gaining adherents in the USA.
Islamic groups generally agree that the number of U.S. Muslims who associate with a mosque is about 2 million, up from about 500,000 two decades ago. (Islamic groups estimate that, in all, there are 6 million to 7 million Muslims in the USA.) There are more than 1,200 U.S. mosques; 60% of those opened during the past 20 years.
For years, new Muslim congregations bought old churches or schools and put mosques in them, says Ahmed ElHattab, director general of the Islamic Society of North America Development Foundation in Plainfield, Ind. Now, ElHattab says, mature congregations want their own spaces specifically designed as mosques with traditional architecture such as domes, minarets and large prayer rooms. Usually, ElHattab says, communities welcome mosques.
Like those seeking to open churches and synagogues, Muslims who want to open mosques in residential areas are protected by a law Congress passed in 2000 that bans cities from using zoning laws to fight such plans. But the act doesn’t immunize houses of worship from land-use codes as long as the codes don’t discriminate against religious groups.
Conflicts across the nation
Since 9/11, there have been several conflicts over mosques besides the one in Voorhees:
• In the Village of Morton Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, a Muslim group, residents opposed to a proposed mosque and local officials are in a legal fight that is being watched by civil rights lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department.
The Muslim Education Center has operated a grade school in Morton Grove since 1989. On the Muslim Sabbath each Friday, students, parents and other community members worship in the school’s gym. In November 2002, Muslim leaders proposed building a mosque on school grounds. Although the village denied the permit, neighbors opposed to the mosque plan weren’t satisfied. They sued the village in September to try to force officials to ban the services.
The group’s Web site accused the city of allowing the school to become a “regional Mega-Mosque.” The group wants the city to enforce a zoning law that bans worship services without a special permit. The Muslim group fought back in October with a lawsuit against the city. The lawsuit claims that requiring a permit to worship violates federal law.
“The neighborhood group wants the village to shut them down,” says John Mauck, a lawyer who represents the Muslim center. “That’s a denial of free exercise of religion.”
Village officials say they do not intend to prohibit prayer, but say they denied the mosque a building permit because its plans had insufficient parking. “The vast majority of people in Morton Grove aren’t bigoted, and they don’t like the way their village is coming across,” says Ted Hadley, a lawyer for the village. “The whole issue is whether they have enough parking.” The parties in the dispute are in mediation.
• A proposed mosque in Scottsdale, Ariz., is prompting “for sale” signs in a neighborhood near the McDowell Mountains. A Muslim group that owns 3.38 acres applied to build a mosque less than a week before the 9/11 attacks. In January, after several hearings were held and plans were redrawn, the mosque got permission to build. Neighbors say they opposed the mosque and its planned 35-foot minaret for aesthetic reasons only.
Robert Hart, whose home is north of the mosque site, says he and his neighbors would have opposed any building that wasn’t a single-family house. He says the view and the pristine desert preserve define the neighborhood. “The (local) newspaper made it out like it was a Muslim thing. Honest to God, it was not,” says Hart, who has decided to move.
Tarif Jaber, who is managing the mosque project for the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley in Scottsdale, says aesthetic objections “don’t tell the whole story” of the opposition. “Remember, we did this right after 9/11. A lot of people began to associate this religion with violence. …We assure them that we are good neighbors.”
Local religious groups stepped forward to help. Rabbi Charles Herring of Temple Kol Ami of Phoenix say residents rarely are happy to host a religious institution. “In this case, I sensed something that went beyond simple housing values. It was really an undercurrent of anti-Islamic feeling. I was not pleased.”
• A small mosque in Marietta, Ga., has held open houses to get to know its neighbors since its plan for a new mosque was rejected. For seven years, the mosque has operated out of a house, says Amjad Taufique, one of the mosque trustees. In December 2002, the trustees went before the local zoning board to seek a variance for a new mosque with 70-feet minaret. Taufique figured it wouldn’t be an issue because local churches have steeples that tall.
The board denied the request by a 5-2 vote. Board member W.O. Wilkerson, who voted to approve the mosque, says that “it was voted against purely because they were Muslims. The neighbors … said they didn’t want Muslims in the neighborhood. … If we’re going to talk about having a country of laws, we better live by that.”
Board Chairman James Mills says he voted against the plan because the group had not adequately explained what it planned to do. Neighbors “were reacting because of the lack of communication,” Mills says. “It had nothing to do with them being Muslim.”
But Taufique says that at the public hearing, “people yelled and screamed and went … totally out of control. … People were really concerned about who we are and what we were doing in the neighborhood. They were scared.”
Last year, the Muslim group bought property next to its current location. Taufique says the group might try again. “We think this can be worked out.”