Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Public safety or prejudice? Georgia county fights plans for mosque

Story highlights

  • The US Department of Justice has agreed to review the Newton County mosque moratorium
  • Since 2009, CAIR found that Islamophobia has interfered with at least 40 zoning proposals for mosques
(CNN)Eleven years ago, when Mohammad Islam decided to open his mosque, he built his modest house of worship inside a ranch house on a quiet street in Doraville, Georgia.
Over a decade's time, Al Maad Al Islami grew slowly from a handful of members who prayed there five times a day to more than 200 people attending evening prayer on Fridays.
    The 50-year-old soft-spoken imam, who in the early '90s left Bangladesh to come to America, has long believed the day would come when his mosque would outgrow its current home. In his mind, part of that growth meant the construction of a cemetery so that his congregation could bury the dead, and a mosque devoted to funeral rituals.
    Islam looked far and wide for a place to build a mosque and cemetery before purchasing a 135-acre plot 40 miles southeast of Atlanta. The undeveloped land was cheap at $675,000, and across the street from a Baptist church with an adjacent cemetery. Only a fraction of the land, Islam said, would be needed for the mosque -- the rest had the potential to be developed into a park, housing, and a school for religious education. In August 2015, Al Maad Al Islami inked the deal, obtained approval from Newton County, and everything seemed to be settled.
    "We thought we'd have no issues," Islam said.

    Stop the mosque

    Then the word got out: First, details leaked from a county planning meeting, then one local politician opined whether the federal government would resettle Middle Eastern refugees nearby as a result, and soon the "STOP the Mosque" Facebook page appeared with the #‎NoJihadInDixie‬ hashtag. In response to the uproar, Newton County officials last week passed a moratorium on the construction of all houses of worship to further study issues such as the impact of traffic and noise.
    "This wouldn't have happened if this was a Protestant church," said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national Muslim advocacy group. "This won't stand up in the court of public opinion, much less a public court."
    In recent years, Islamophobia in America has largely emerged in the form of fiery campaign rhetoric -- GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump's proposed Muslim ban -- as well as violent confrontations. But it's also quietly occurred, as American Muslims from New Jersey toIllinois to Georgia have witnessed, through local elected officials' use of zoning rules to stop new Islamic facilities from coming to town.
    Beyond the borders of Atlanta's suburban sprawl, Newton County's population has grown by more than two-thirds since the turn of the millennium. The area has also become increasingly diverse: White residents, who in 2000 accounted for three-quarters of the population, today barely make up the majority. The change, now taking the form of Islam's cemetery mosque, compelled more than 300 people to attend a pair of town hall meetings Monday night in the city of Covington. Flanked by uniformed officers, Newton County residents took turns calling for compassion and voicing their opposition to the proposed mosque and cemetery.
    Randy Toms, one resident who spoke at the meeting, said news of the proposed mosque and cemetery had "totally surprised" nearby community members. "We are here tonight to find out what's really going on."
    His wife, Joy Toms, voiced her suspicions: "As a United States citizen we don't need people that don't want to go by our laws. What are they actually going to be doing there at the mosque?"

    'These are really scary times'

    Between 2009 and 2015, CAIR has documented more than 40 incidents in which mosque proposals faced interference due to what it says is Islamophobia. In a report released in December 2015, the group also found more incidents targeting mosques -- including vandalism, harassment, and intimidation -- since it started keeping tabs on such incidents at the end of the last decade.
    In the past five years, officials in cities across metro Atlanta have used zoning laws to deter Muslim projects from being built. The city of Lilburn twice rejected a Shiite group's mosque proposal -- only approving it in 2011 after the Department of Justice got involved. Two years ago, Kennesaw rejected an application for a mosque seeking to operate out of a shopping center -- reversing course only after threats of a lawsuit. This past October, members of the region's 8,000-person Bosnian community, many of whom are Muslim, were not allowed to build a cemetery in Snellville due to residents' concerns that the project would decrease property values and increase traffic.
    Atlanta-based human rights attorney Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director for Project South, said the objections raised by these opponents over the past several years, including public safety and noise concerns, are "an attempt to disguise" discrimination in order to suppress the free exercise of religion for peaceful Muslims.
    "There's an attempt to portray Muslims as 'other,'" Shahshahani said. "When you have that type of rhetoric being espoused [at the national level], it's creating an unwelcome community for Muslims in what is their home. These are really scary times."
    Such tensions, which have boiled over in similar meetings nationwide, were enough for Islam to skip the town hall meetings Monday night. During those meetings, some of the mosque and cemetery opponents voiced xenophobic sentiments. Yet a few people like Christy Blanchford, a Covington resident and physician, objected to the denial of the Muslim group's constitutional rights.
    "Everyone should have the right to assemble peacefully," Blanchford said at one town hall meeting. "I work with a lot of Muslim physicians and I have a lot of Muslim patients. They are embedded here in the community. They should have a place of worship close to where they work and home."

    Public safety or prejudice?

    Ultimately, Shahshahani said, Newton County's moratorium may violate the federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which makes it illegal for local officials to place a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of houses of worship. Newton County commissioners, who hosted and attended Monday night's meetings, did not return CNN's multiple requests for comment.
    "This is not about public safety, this is about prejudice," said NAACP Georgia Executive Director Francys Johnson. "Georgia prejudice is as old as Georgia peaches."
    Given the threat of discrimination, civil rights advocacy groups including CAIR and the NAACP last week urged the US Department of Justice to investigate Newton County's actions. Mitchell said Tuesday the Justice Department had agreed to review their request, but that he hoped officials there would reverse the moratorium prior to a potential investigation. In addition, Mitchell announced he would visit Newton County to hold an "Islam 101" meeting in the near future.

    @FoxNews @CNN mosque meeting with newton county #interfaith#community#doraville#newton
    1:04 PM - 23 Aug 2016

    In the face of prejudice, however, Islam does not wish to fight back against the people who live near the potential future site of his mosque and cemetery. Instead, he hopes to embrace those wary of his congregation with a message of peace -- starting with a lunch invitation Tuesday afternoon at the Doraville mosque.
    "We love them, we respect them, we need to be patient," Islam said. "If you have doubts, we welcome you. If we open a dialogue, we hope they will see that the rest of people can live side by side with us. We think they'll eventually be our neighbor."


    Planned Muslim cemetery, mosque face opposition in Georgia community

    mosque meeting 823
    (Fox 5)
    Hundreds of people in Georgia attended a forum Monday night voicing concerns over a mosque and Muslim cemetery planned for Newton County -- a plan that officials reportedly approved without any public input.
    Fox5Atlanta.com reported that the area of land essentially amounted to a compound. The complaints included fears the land could ultimately be used as a terror training camp. Other people cited the tradition of Muslims traditionally burying their dead unembalmed.
    “I would like to say that there is no camp, everyone will have access,” Imam Mohammad Islam told the news station. He said the plans call for a 4,000-square-foot mosque with a 2,500-square-foot preparation center.
    His congregation includes mostly Bangladeshi Muslims, the news station reported. The imam did not rule out expanding to a new school in the neighborhood in the future.
    Some members of the community expressed disappointment that the imam did not attend the meeting to discuss the plans.
    “If they want to assimilate into our community, where are they at tonight?” one man asked. “Mr. Imam, come and talk to us.”
    The station reported that it tried to get a response from city officials who worked on the project but several commissioners refused to comment.
    Newton County is about 40 minutes southeast of Atlanta.
    Newton County mosque: Hundreds turn out to say no way

    Updated: 11:29 p.m. Monday, Aug. 22, 2016  |  Posted: 9:16 p.m. Monday, Aug. 22, 2016

    Hundreds of Newton County residents packed the historic Covington courthouse Monday evening for public hearings on a planned mosque and Muslim cemetery that has sparked fierce opposition.
    The majority of speakers came out against the mosque, citing concerns over terrorism and assimilation of Muslims into the community. Some expressed fear that the mosque would become an al-Qaida training camp or impose Sharia law on the community.
    “To say we wish to disallow this project based on religious discrimination … is ludicrous and hypocritical,” said a woman who did not give her name. “They are discriminating against us by calling us infidels who do not believe in their religion.”
    “We have the right to protect ourselves and our country,” she concluded. Her comments were met with whoops and cheers from the 300 people in the audience.
    The uproar has prompted the county to issue a temporary moratorium on new places of worship.
    Al Maad Al Islami, a Doraville mosque, purchased 135 acres on Ga. 162 in June 2015, when it also received a county permit for a place of worship. The mosque does not have any business before the county. It has not submitted plans or applied for building permits. The board of commissioners has no plans to vote on any action following Monday’s hearings.
    County Commission Chairman Keith Ellis said the purpose of Monday’s town hall meetings was to “provide our citizens with a platform to express their concerns and ask questions about the proposed project.”
    No one from the mosque was present to answer questions. Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Channel 2 Action News that members of the community may be too scared of the negative reaction to attend the meetings.
    “It gives Newton County a bad reputation, it gives Georgia a bad reputation, it gives America a bad reputation,” he said. “For the sake of defending the Constitution, upholding American values … I encourage all Georgians to speak out against the unfair, unethical and unconstitutional behavior.”
    A Newton County sheriff’s deputy watches as a man speaks Monday at a town hall meeting in Covington about plans to build a mosque and Muslim cemetery in the area. CURTIS COMPTON /CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
    A young Muslim man named Zuhair said he has lived in Covington for eight years and has been welcomed.
    “I think I’ve seen more hate tonight than I’ve seen in the last 8 years,” he said. “The Islam (that) people are talking about is not the Islam I grew up with.”
    Zuhair pointed out that Muslims are dying on the front lines of the war with ISIS.
    “Get yourself a Muslim friend. It probably, I think, will open your mind a lot,” he said to a smattering of applause.
    Others also expressed concern about the tenor of the comments. One of them was a young woman named Kendra Miller, who said she was of Jewish descent.
    “If this discussion was happening 100 years ago there’s a good chance it would be about my people,” she said. “I’ve heard whispers of killing people as I’ve sat here, as I’ve stood in line. … I would hate for us to fall to that level again.”
    Brigette and Anthony Washington recently returned to Newton County after spending four years in the United Arab Emirates, where Brigette taught high school English. Speaking before the meeting, they said they were concerned by what they considered anti-Muslim sentiment.
    “We’ve had very positive experiences with Arabs and Muslims from different parts of the Middle East,” said Brigette Washington, adding that they were treated with the “utmost respect” in the U.A.E.
    Anthony Washington, a retired law enforcement officer with the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, waved a satirical “obituary” for the United States that someone had distributed among those waiting in line to enter the courthouse. The paper concluded that a “good Muslim” cannot be a “good American.”
    “So much of what I lived contradicts what I am reading,” he said. “I was treated better there than I was here.”
    The NAACP and more than a dozen Muslim groups have called for the county to be investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice. Ellis, the county chairman, declined to comment on the threat of legal action.
    County Commissioner Nancy Schulz said in a statement Friday that she respects “the diversity of our community and the rights of our citizenry to express their opinions.”
    “Additionally, I support the county in its commitment to follow federal and state requirements and local ordinances and laws on all county zoning matters,” she said.
    Commissioner Lanier Sims said he supported the freedom of religion.
    “I’m not going to say there were racist rants,” he said. “Everybody (has) an opinion.”
    The county’s moratorium on new places of worship is limited to five weeks. County Attorney Megan Martin said it is not intended to block construction of the mosque, but rather to give the county time to study its ordinances as they related to “campus-like” places of worship.
    Mohammad Islami, the imam of the Doraville mosque, previously said his congregation plans to build a cemetery and “simple” mosque, and eventually a park, school and residences.

    COVINGTON, Ga. – Nearly a week after the Newton County Commissioners Office passed a moratorium to put a hold on a proposal to build a mosque and cemetery, the public is finally getting the chance to speak their thoughts.
    On Monday night, neighbors gathered in front of Newton County Commissioners in Covington for public comment about the plan, one that’s become a growing controversy.
    Last week, Commissioners put a five-week hold on issuing any permits that would allow builders to break ground on the mosque and cemetery. Commissioners also decided to re-evaluate county zoning laws that previously allowed for houses of worship to be built anywhere, regardless of what land was zoned for.
    County officials said at last week’s meeting they issued the hold because they were not made aware of the plans for the land, owned by an Atlanta-area mosque, but documents showed the initial permit was approved more than a year ago.
    The county’s response quickly drew criticism, as did Commissioner John Douglas’s comments. He was quoted by a local paper asking whether there were enough Muslims in south Newton County to support the mosque and if the complex would “make us a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East.”
    Neighbors expressed concerns over the increase of traffic. They were not allowed to voice their feelings on the project last meeting, but they did pack the meeting space.
    The did so, again, Monday night, for the town hall meeting and public comment. The meeting, held in two sessions that stretched for three hours, was impassioned. 
    Based on comments from those in attendance at the meeting, people don't seem to want the plan to proceed more for seemingly religious reasons instead of claimed traffic concerns.
    "We have already seen bombings and beheadings," said one woman. "Eight years ago our U.S. government got a Muslim president who has put Muslims in power.”
    “It’s hard for people like me, and probably most of you tonight, to draw the line between innocent Muslims and radical Muslims, since they’ve all claimed to serve the same God and they all claim to follow the same book,” said another.
    Another woman in the crowd, did have legitimate concerns over the size of the project.
    "It really bothers me that I’m labeled a bigot because I just question it," she said. "Because I don’t care if they come and worship, but I do care if it’s a 135 acres of a very large development.”
    But probably the most sobering comments came from a woman who identified herself as Jewish. She spoke up and said discussion over the development was necessary, but cautioned against some of the inflammatory comments.
    "If this discussion was happening 100 years ago, there’s a good chance it would be happening to my people," she said. "And a hundred years or so ago, millions of people my people, including my great aunt, were sent to their deaths.”


    WSBTV Reports:  Mosque Meeting Gets Heated  click on below link:


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