Ali Chaudry didn’t have the time to fully break his fast. He rushed off from a sundown feast with family and friends to appear before the planning board of Basking Ridge, the sleepy New Jersey township where he has lived for 34 years.
It was Eid alAdha, the festival of sacrifice, one of the holiest times in the Muslim calendar three days of reflection, prayer, and celebration. Tradition demanded the finest clothes and Chaudry was dressed in a sharp navy blue suit as he waited in the township municipal building. For Chaudry, this late October holiday was more a time of unease than of celebration. His plans to build a house of worship for a 60plus congregation of local Muslims had unleashed strong, sustained community opposition.
Chaudry kept preparing for his presentation that night in October 2012 aside his team of lawyers and engineers. At long last, the board chairman called for the final application on the agenda, the mosque Chaudry’s congregation intended for a nearby plot of land. In the sterilewhite courtroom now filled with nearly 50 local residents debate about traffic, noise, and parking consumed the better part of three hours. Would Friday worship conclude at the same time as dismissal of the elementary school across the street? Would the call to prayer be broadcast like in traditional Islamic mosques? How would the traffic affect the fourway junction down the road? By 11 p.m., more questions had been raised than conclusions reached, and the board decided to continue the debate at its November meeting. On this Islamic holiday meant to honor accomplishment and success, Ali Chaudry found himself sacrificing, all right, but with success by no means assured.
“Alhamdulillah,” Chaudry had tweeted thirteen months earlier, in September of 2011, “we expect to complete the purchase of 4.3 acres at 124 Church Street in Basking Ridge in two to three weeks.”
Little did he realize how long permission to build would take. Nearly 10 township board meetings, two lawyers, an architect, an engineer, and a traffic consultant later, in April of 2013, the mosque still only existed on paper, stalled all this time before the Basking Ridge Planning Board.
Such delays are by no means unusual. In New Jersey alone, there are three mosques struggling against varying forms and strengths of negative community response. Nationally, a September Pew survey found that 53 proposed Islamic centers have encountered some kind of community resistance in recent years. Opponents mostly rally around zoning and planning complaints in their towns’ council meetings, arguing concerns that range from traffic congestion to neighborhood safety in a quest to halt construction.
The post 9/11 era places the Islamic mosque at the forefront of an uneasy tension among security concerns, terrorism, and the country’s democratic values. Last year, the Associated Press reported that the New York Police Department conducted a massive surveillance of nearly every mosque from Queens to New Jersey, based solely on religious grounds. The surveillance, coupled with the department’s highly controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy, generated a sweeping backlash from many of the city’s minority communities. These local mosque building controversies triggered by draggedout building approval processes have come to symbolize much wider divisions, not to mention, a seeping and subtle bias that haunts the American Muslim community at large.
No recent controversy illustrates the issue better than the unprecedented national attention directed at Park51, the 2010 proposal to build an Islamic Community Center at a vexed location a few blocks from Ground Zero. In another highprofile case in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, mosque opponents literally put the religion of Islam on trial, arguing before the court that Islam should not be protected by the Constitution. But cases closer to Park51 tend to focus less overtly on faith. After months of zoning and landuse complaints similar to those Chaudry is facing now, members of the Al Falah congregation in the nearby Bridgewater Township, New Jersey filed a suit claiming free exercise of religion. Last summer, a mosque in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn was finally able to begin construction after a yearlong battle during which local politicians some facing reelection capitalized on the strong reactions of a tense and divided community.
Historically, any number of religions have faced periods of persecution directed at their community centers and houses of worship. Catholic Churches were at the vanguard of the vicious 19th century “Know Nothing” movement, spurred by a fear that Catholic immigration would threaten the country’s Republican values. At the height of the nativist crusade centered around opposition to the St. Philip Neri's Catholic Church bandits torched churches and sabotaged Catholic centers during the Philadelphia Riots of 1844. Opposition to the building of neighborhood synagogues peaked in the 1930s but took an entirely new form during the later part of the last century. Opponents tactfully began placing spirited energy behind zoning and landuse concerns, many that mirror the mosque resistance so prevalent today. Burdensome zoning regulations targeting religious facility development became so commonplace that more than a decade ago key federal legislation, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act , or RLUIPA, passed unanimously in the House and the Senate in 2000 to address the issue.
And yet, orchestrated movements against such proposals persist, with many local community debates now elevating to federal court, often arguing the RLUIPA statute. “Land use regulation is extremely vague and general, so it is a particularly easy place to discriminate,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in law of religious liberty.
Today, Islam is hardly the only religion facing such discrimination. Jews are still on the opposition agenda, along with Sikhs and other minority religions whose construction plans have met significant community hostility. But statistics show that mosque controversies are at an alltime high compared to previous decades. In a 2011 report titled “Confronting Discrimination in the Post 9/11 Era,” the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice disclosed that while Muslims comprise only an estimated 1 percent of the U.S. population, 14 percent of RLUIPA landuse investigations involved Islamic facilities.
Forty miles east of the nowfunctioning Park51, Chaudry’s proposed mosque has neither the drama nor has it attracted the attention of the Park51 or Murfreesboro controversies. But an energized local opposition has formed against his modest proposal that calls for 4,252squarefoot mosque to replace a house that now sits on a 4.3acre plot of land in an area residents call a historic section of the town. Blue and white signs that read “Preserve Liberty Corner” dot the lawns of local resident and businesses throughout the quiet New Jersey suburb. Chaudry’s opponents, a citizens’ group called the Bernard's Township Citizens for Responsible Development distributes the customized lawn signs. The group’s website identifies itself as a nonprofit organization and lists the mosque as its sole “concern.” The resident’s group “committed to responsible growth and the preservation of the rural and bucolic nature of our community” lists public safety, traffic, and the inevitability of future growth as their primary issues. The group did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Basking Ridge case is in its early stage compared to other mosques that have faced years of threats, vandalism, and court action. While many residents do in fact have genuine landuse concerns, those legitimate interests are often used as a courtroom front for an opposition born of a muddled mix of religious suspicion, ignorance, and misinformation.
And yet the public face of the controversy appears dry, a tedious disagreement of oddly impassioned quarrels over the methodology of traffic calculations. As the arguments and months drag on, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify what the real issues are. Resistance in the officialdom of local township proceedings hides under the mask of political correctness. Religion only comes up when the cases move to the courts, as in the Bridgewater case. It is there that antidiscrimination arguments are likely to be introduced.
“Who wants to live next to this flow of people?” asked Joseph Abbate, a Basking Ridge resident and opponent in the case against Chaudry’s mosque. “We’ve already been hit so hard in the past couple years,” he said, referring to the country’s dwindling economy. “This would be the final straw.”
Abbate feared that if one family in the neighborhood put its house on the market in anticipation of the mosque’s construction, it would trigger a dangerous domino effect of panic. Then the entire neighborhood would flee, his reasoning goes, and the homes would lose value.
NIMBY, “not in my backyard,” is the worn, but relevant, sentiment that most aptly applies. Neighbors might offer support in principle for, say, homeless shelters or drug rehabilitation centers, but shudder at the very notion of such a facility nearby and its perceived impact on property values.
In a way, mosques have come to carry a similar taboo. Even with those who are neutral or accepting of their Islamic neighbors, there is an abiding perception that mosques have a negative impact on community and neighborhood values. A 2006 Gallup Poll found antiIslamic sentiment to be “fairly commonplace,” with 22 percent of respondents admitting they would not like to have a Muslim neighbor. While a vast majority of Americans support religious freedom, they become less convinced when a minaret is going to be in eyeshot of their front door.
American perception of the Islamic faith has become an ambiguous silhouette its texts, traditions, and Prophet overshadowed and overcrowded by the 9/11 attacks and the impending decade’s wars in the Muslim world. In September of 2010, a Washington Post and ABC poll found that nearly half the country, 49 percent, held an unfavorable view of Islam. The terrorist attacks propelled Islam into Western consciousness, though, it was not the attacks themselves that tainted American popular opinion. Eight years earlier, in 2002, when the scars of 9/11 were still very fresh, only 39 percent of Americans expressed negative views.
“At first, right after the attacks, we felt kind of optimistic that the disapproval numbers were not alarmingly high,” said Cyrus McGoldrick, the former civil rights manager for the Council On American Islamic Relations, known as CAIR. Another question in the survey asked Americans if they had ever interacted with Muslims and many Americans replied “no.” “So [many] Muslim Americans were like, ‘Oh yay, we just need to meet them’,” McGoldrick said, “Then they’ll like us. Everything will be fine.”
Elected officials and other politicians often sustain and legitimize the prevailing narrative on Islam, spreading a morass of misinformation, fear, and seeping prejudice into dangerous corners of American civil society. As recently as August of 2012, U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, RIll., told a crowd at a campaign rally that “Muslims are here trying to kill Americans everyday.” Days later, a man opened fire a mosque hosting Ramadan worship in the Chicago area. The following evening, an acid bomb flew through the window of an Islamic School in a Chicago suburb during nightly worship.
In August 2012, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist and former U.S. Army veteran, took a gun to a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and injuring four. The way his motive was cast in the media was one of mistaken religious identity, since it’s believed Page thought the Sikh worshippers were Muslims. While the Sikh religion and Islam are entirely unrelated faiths, Sikh men often wear turbans and grow their beards, similar to Islamic garb.
In December of that year, Sunado Sen was pushed in front of a New York City subway and killed by an oncoming train. Police of the 112th precinct arrested a 31yearold woman for the crime. In a statement, Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown quoted her as saying, “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims... Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I've been beating them up."
The events tragedies in and of themselves carry a largely unexamined story of a dangerously misinformed American public. A threat emerges, not only to the freedoms of community leaders like Chaudry and his fellow American Muslims, but to the stability of a multiracial, immigrantdriven society.
In 2011, following a sixmonth long investigation, the Center for American Progress released a 130page report titled Fear Inc.; The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America. The report carefully pieces together those players in the media, the government, and grassroots organizations who are most responsible for spreading misinformation and inflaming antiMuslim sentiment. It reveals a tightlyknit network, spearheaded by just seven foundations flooding over $42milliondollars to support five misinformation experts. The “experts” generate antiIslam material that are then amplified by the media, politicians, and grassroots organizers. The “experts” even travel the country, testifying before courts and calling for the ban on the nonexisting threat of Sharia law, rousing suspicion of the Muslim American community and pitting followers of Islam against the values and freedoms of American ideals.
“Propaganda works, especially if it’s wellfunded,” said Dr. Charles C. Haynes, the director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Haynes is also a senior scholar the the First Amendment Center.
The network has in many ways succeeded. A 2010 Time magazine poll showed that 28 percent of American voters do not believe Muslims should be eligible to sit on the Supreme Court and nearly one third of the country thinks Muslims should be barred from running for President.
At this same time, the U.S. Muslim population is maturing and prospering. The Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the quota system and made immigration easier for nonEuropeans coming to America. Today, an estimated 75 percent of foreignborn Arab Americans immigrated after 1964 from wardevastated countries such as Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq and from impoverished nations such as Egypt and Pakistan. Over half a decade later, many of these immigrant Muslims are now Americans citizens who have established themselves as successful doctors, lawyers, and professors.
With financial success has come the desire to move their place of worship out of storefronts and other makeshift quarters into beautiful, more permanent spaces to gather and pray. A 2011 survey tallied 2,106 mosques nationally, almost double the number of mosques in 2000. While Muslims like Chaudry consider this growth “natural,” other Americans regard mosque development in their neighborhood with suspicion. The survey also found a trend among Muslims, who are required to pray five times a day, toward suburbanization, evident in the Basking Ridge and Bridgewater cases, where opponents argue the area is “too residential.”
Ali Chaudry, serious and softhearted, hovers a few inches under six feet. Pakistaniborn, he came to the U.S. in June of 1967 as an exchange student from the prestigious London School of Economics where he graduated with honors in econometrics and quantitative economics. While working on assignment for AT&T, which was then in its heyday of telecommunication growth, Chaudry earned his Ph.D. from Tufts University on full scholarship.
Today, he is a professor at the Rutgers University Camden School of Business, but his curriculum vitae includes a long list of significant public engagement. He has served on the Board of Education, the Board of Directors for the local YMCA, and after being elected to the Township Committee in the months following 9/11, he was appointed to serve as the mayor of Bernards Township. In 2004, Chaudry became the first Pakistani mayor in the country.
“It is an honor and a privilege,” said Chaudry of his election in an interview with CBS in 2004. “Any community can integrate with the larger community of Americans, and make a contribution.”
Muslims like Chaudry and experts like Haynes agree that a majority of Americans are not prejudiced against Muslims. Chaudry’s integration into his community, and specifically his evident community standing, reflects statistics that show while there might be some Americans who fear a Muslim neighbor, 78 percent are indifferent, or even welcoming.
“I’ve become part of the community,” said Chaudry, who wears a small American flag pin on his lapel above his heart. “We’ve raised our three children here. This is our home.” The Fear Inc. report contends that opposition to Muslims in the United States emanates from a tiny, but influential, network of Islamophobic actors who have learned to work the system. The network pours millions of dollars into the political process, rewarding politicians who echo these sentiments, which, in turn amplifies these otherwise fringe voices in the wider culture.
“They mask themselves under the name of scholar and expert,” said Haynes of the Newseum. “They rely mostly on stories from abroad and so people only hear the horror stories; about Sharia law, peoples’ hands being cut off and women being abused.”
Haynes is the author of a recent report titled “The Truth About American Muslims.” In it, he notes that the media’s propensity to sensationalize stories has also helped fuel discrimination. As Haynes put it, a story about Muslim sleeper cells in Germany is far more likely to go viral than one about Muslims giving away free backpacks.
Among the most visible of the fearmongerers are a few avid, energetic, and crafty antiIslam activists. It has been nearly three years since Pamela Geller blogging prowess and Tea Party starlet led her notorious opposition effort against Park51. Fear Inc. lists Geller among the prime movers in the Islamophobic network.
Today the Park51 center is a spacious, onestory building, but certainly not the 16story Islamic center it was intended to be. Geller declared the reduction in scope “a success of American patriotism,” a defeat for what she called “that insult to the memory of the victims of 9/11.” The facility features a carpeted prayer area on one side and a brightly lit meeting room on the other. When I visited, only two men were praying, but the Friday sermon, the best attended in any given week, typically attracts a more packed crowd that fills the first floor and basement.
Park51 catapulted Geller and her blog “Atlas Shrugs” which PayPal at one point deemed a “hate site” to national prominence. The stayathome blogger and selfproclaimed activist has perfected the means to rallying masses by way of viral blogging, Internet forums, and social media.
Since Geller’s Internet genesis in 2005, the single mother of four has somehow garnered nearly 30,000 followers on her Twitter account, but the woman who once videotaped herself lecturing about “Islamofascism” in a bikini, is not widely regarded as any kind of policy or religion expert. She has attracted countless denunciations from the AntiDefamation League and as a New York Times profile noted in 2010, she is “operating largely outside of traditional Washington power centers and for better or worse, without traditional academic, public policy or journalism credentials. . . .”
Morals and credentials aside, Geller has waged an impressively bold and energetic war against Islam and its many “allies.” She has photoshopped pictures of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in a Nazi uniform , deemed George Soros an “Evil Emperor,” and paralleled health care reform to an act of governmental “rape.” While Geller herself remains in the margins, her influence has helped render normal the notion that Islamic terrorism stems not from a corruption of religion, but from Islam itself.
It becomes clear, in both the cases of Park51 and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, that a tyranny of the majority is not driving a thick opposition of Gellerlike extremists.
“It’s true that the mosque hearings bring more residents to our meetings than average,” a person close to Basking Ridge Planning Board said, requesting not to be named. “But it’s not exactly the numbers that have dragged this out for almost a year. It’s the energy behind the numbers.”
How enervating that opposition energy can be was blatantly apparent during the third Planning Board meeting for Chaudry’s mosque in October of 2012. Anyone could see it on the tired, weary face of of Henry Ney, the mosque’s traffic consultant. Ney confidently ticked off his credentials; five years as a county engineer, a Ph.D. from Yale University in civil engineering, and 12 years of government services.
The veteran consultant testified that the proposed mosque would not affect the traffic flow of “Liberty Corner.” He asserted that his calculations were cautious and conservative. If the mosque were built, the flow would remain the same even in a “worstcase scenario,” the busiest prayer days and double the number of vehicles anticipated.
None of Ney’s impressive credentials could have saved him from the rapidfire questioning that ensued. How did he estimate the number of people per car? Will the congregation of 60 continue to grow? What if there are additional prayers? Why was he not prepared?
“The biggest concern is that the largest prayer day, the Friday prayer, will interfere with the end of the day for the local elementary school,” a local resident named Lori Caratzola told me. For the next two hours, until the meeting ended at 11 p.m., the veteran traffic engineer defended his calculations. He would need to do it again and again at subsequent meetings.
As Laycock, the professor of religious liberty, explained, unusually high attendance at hearings for houses of worship is nothing unusual. “The [[zoning and planning]] process is very accessible to individual citizens and there is often a lot of neighborhood participation,” he said. “With a new grocery store or movie theater, citizens are much less vocal. But with a house of worship, nearly everyone knows that they themselves will have no use of it. So this area of law invites unprincipled opposition.”
The issue of traffic congestion and the jarring examination of Henry Ney’s analysis is just a tin foil cover over a cauldron of brewing tensions in this sleepy suburban town.
Although the proposal has been officially recognized as conforming to all requirements for a house of worship, Chaudry’s opponents have devised any number of arguments against it: The mosque’s funding was too sketchy. The project was oversized. The proposed lighting for the parking lot would change the character of the neighborhood. The minaret is too high. The number of parking spaces are too few. Chaudry has diligently addressed every issue.
“The school lets out no earlier than 2:30 p.m. so we will make sure that our prayers will never go later than 2 p.m.,” said Chaudry, who reasons that Friday Islamic prayers rarely begin later than 1 p.m. “I am willing to work with the community,” he said. “I am willing to be flexible.”
He has flown balloons in the air to estimate the height of the minaret, perfected the architecture of the mosque to blend with the historic “character” of the area, and increased parking spaces to address concerns of a “growing community.” The subject has been questioned relentlessly pages of studies, graphs, calculations all analyzed down to the very last detail for a congregation of just over 60 worshippers.
“Google is not opening its headquarters here,” said Chaudry comparing it to the massive influx of people in the 1970s, largely due to AT&T opening its headquarters in Basking Ridge.
Chaudry’s heavy leather briefcase is oversized but still overpacked. Not only is this fight for the mosque costing him financially, and physically as, at 71, he is sleeping an average of only four hours a night. He considers the defense of the mosque the equivalent of a fulltime job. Everything else fits in around the case.
He estimates that he has spends more than twenty hours a week meeting with the lawyers, engineers, and architects, overviewing arguments and modifying his plan flawless. “I spend almost every waking hour thinking about this,” he said. “When I’m talking to someone, going somewhere, taking a bath. I’m always thinking about it.”
“I have to know the facts,” he said. “I’ve sort of put everything on the line, you know, financially, personally, whatever political capital I have in the community and the state. I put that on the line too.”
While many other groups behind mosque proposals have cited religious discrimination in their cases, Chaudry is hesitant to play that card. “I don’t want this to become a controversy,” he said. “I want this to go smoothly. Legally, I mean.”
A “Preserve Liberty Corner” sign is stuck in the lawn of an abandoned autobody shop just a quarter of a mile from the proposed site. Nearby are two elementary schools, a firehouse, convenience stores, restaurants, and a public park. Wedged between a barber shop and the elementary school is a Presbyterian church that serves a congregation of more than 1,000. It is only a quarter of a mile down the road from Chaudry’s land.
“In reality, it is not a typical residential neighborhood,” said a local real estate agent. About the traffic, she said, “People have a right to wonder and ask questions,” but was not sure it was logical to show so much concern.
Chaudry has continuously declined requests from local reporters to draw parallels between his situation and that of the neighboring Bridgewater Township, where the Al Falah Center brought a suit against the Township of Bridgewater flatly charging religious discrimination. Chaudry asserts that those arguments are “not yet” relevant to his case.
In Bridgewater, debate surrounding traffic, parking, and other zoning matters raged on through the winter of 2011 at the local planning board level. On March 14th of the same year, the Township Council adopted a new ordinance that rendered the mosque proposal legally impossible. The ordinance, which mosque proponents claim was rushed and undiscussed, removed the location of Al Falah’s land from the Township’s list of sites permitted for houses of worship.
The defendants filed a complaint with the federal district court of New Jersey in April 2011. It alleges that the new zoning ordinance discriminates against the area’s Muslim community, violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment, as well as RLUIPA.
Before the new ordinance, the Al Falah case made no mention of religion. Opponents organized behind concerns similar to those in Basking Ridge of “traffic” and “character” with energized community participation. In January of 2011, the public hearing for Al Falah’s proposal attracted so many community members that the council had to postpone until a larger venue could be found.
“There are people who are thinking, ‘I live in a quiet neighborhood and I’m concerned about traffic’,” said Rachel LevinsonWaldman, a lawyer at the New York University Brennan Center for Justice who is involved with the case. “But I do think that in a lot of these cases not all that is a pretext for concerns about Islam. Who is it specifically that is going to be bringing this traffic? Who will be coming in these cars? Are they going to be practicing a religion we are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with?”
In packed rooms, such as those in New Jersey, it’s reasonable to believe that zoning boards would often yield to public pressure. RLUIPA, a law passed to clarify the faulty 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was intended to address this subtle manifestation of prejudice on a local level, making it especially hard for officials to deny religious institutions the right to build. The Congressional hearings pertaining to RLUIPA found “massive evidence” of widespread discrimination against religious persons and organized by state and local officials in landuse decisions. It further found that minority religious institutions often faced both overt and subtle discrimination in denials of zoning board approval. In many of these mosque cases, participants cite “traffic” and other landuse complaints as a type of “subtle discrimination.”
As LevinsonWaldman acknowledged, “This traffic is a reasonable ground on which the town could say, you can’t have a mosque here, or the parking lot isn’t consistent with the nature of the neighborhood.”
The Murfreesboro, Tennessee mosque proposal follows closely behind Park51 as the most publicized of these controversies, and stands in contrast to many of the zoning and landuse based debates. In this twoyear battle for a mosque about 30 miles south of Nashville, religion was central in the courtroom alongside landuse arguments. In a city with more than 140 churches and just one mosque, local officials approved plans for a 53,000squarefoot Islamic center in May of 2010. A month later as news of the approval swept through the community so many citizens showed up to the next County Commissioner hearing that authorities couldn’t let everyone inside the building. Attendees called for an extended hearing on the mosque, crying out that the new center would become a site for terrorist training, festering antiAmerican values, and the abuse of women. Despite a divided community, the Muslims of Murfreesboro prepared to build their mosque. The grueling and emotional process amounted to a bitterly divided community evident in the endless stream of threatening voicemails, vandalism to the congregation’s property, and arson that burned four pieces of construction equipment. Local politicians seized the issue for their election platforms , national media pundits weighed in with fears of creeping Sharia, and community opposition raged on for nearly two years.
“We went through every conceivable means to make sure our rights were upheld. The meetings at the commission, we went through petitions, we went through speaking with our representatives, our Mayor,” local resident and mosqueopponent Kevin Fisher said to CNN in the 2011 documentary Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.
In September, Kevin Fisher and three other Murfreesboro residents filed a lawsuit to halt construction, where opponents argued that Islam, was not a religion, and therefore was not protected by the Constitution. After years of vandalism, threats, and courtroom opposition, federal authorities intervened in favor of the Muslims of Murfreesboro and the mosque opened its doors in August of 2012.
In a society that largely considers itself “progressive” at the legal level, opponents with religionrelated sentiments have grown smarter. Many mosque resistors realize that attacking one of the Constitution’s most coveted protections such as in Murfreesboro is not the best route to take legally. In turn, prejudices are often muted behind tactical arguments that can stand up in court. While “subtle racism” is certainly a testament to a society that has successfully ostracized overt discrimination, it is more difficult to identify and fight.
Ken Kimerling, the attorney who represents the Al Fatah Center, explained “People just don’t talk in those terms anymore,” he said, “although they may act on them.”
The task for attorneys is to prove discrimination on the basis of “inference of circumstances,” since opponents often couch their motivations in neutral expressions, explains Kimerling. “It makes proving discrimination not necessarily straightforward, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible,” he said, adding that with time, lawyers can often pinpoint the opposition’s inconsistencies.
“If the issue is suburban protection of residential neighborhoods,” he said. “Clearly houses of worship have been placed in residential areas from time immemorial, so what is it that changed the game here?”
The articles in the local Basking Ridge Patch describe the official and legal developments inside the hearing, with very brief if any mention of religion. But the comment sections take a whole other form, bearing the religious element of this controversy buried somewhere beneath the numbers.
Mosqueopponents battle their more liberalminded neighbors on arguments almost always resting on the crux of 9/11, that eerily resemble tricklings from the misinformation network dissected by the Fear Inc. report.
“Never forget 9/11” writes the user ‘Jawce’ “Don’t you realize that the goal of Muslim radicals is to TAKE OVER THE WHOLE WORLD and enforce Sharia law!...when radical Islam realized they couldn’t win by turning planes into missles, they are not choosing the way of INFILTRATING our country...”
Other comments attack Chaudry directly, claiming he is linked to the terrorist organization and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Ali would like us all to forget and metaphorically build on the site where victims lived” writes user “JaK.”
A number of posts warn of the Islamization of America, tales of “creeping Sharia,” and warnings of terrorism. Some even reference readers to Pamela Geller.
“What it’s coming down to is a numbers game,” says Lori Caratzola, one of the most vocal members of the local opposition. In front of the Planning Board, Caratzola never mentions religion. Her arguments solely focus on landuse and zoning technicalities about ordinance compliance, parking, and traffic. Privately, Caratzola is a harsh critic of Islam and has gone to great lengths to monitor Chaudry and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. She has attended nearly every planning board meeting, organized community opposition, and even observed the society’s Friday prayer to count the amount of attendees per car. Caratzola is listed on American Public Policy Alliance’s website as a supporter for “American Laws for American Courts,” a national initiative to ban Sharia law and organized by key members listed in Fear Inc.
“For me, I don’t want a mosque anywhere in my town quite frankly,” she said still insisting her opposition to Chaudry’s mosque has nothing to do with religion. “I have my personal feelings, but they are my personal feelings.”
“If I came in there and let them [the Planning Board] know I found out that they [the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge] had money from Hamas, that wouldn’t even matter to the board because they can’t consider anything but landuse,” said Caratzola. She believes that the lack of religious mention is a savvy tactic of Chaudry and his congregation.
“They [the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge] know how to take our First Amendment and use it against us. And that is what they are doing.”
At the site of the proposed mosque on Liberty Corner, Chaudry’s Subaru sits outside the fourbedroom townhouse. Planted upright and centered in the lawns of both contiguous neighbors is a “Preserve Liberty Corner” sign. The only footprints of an Islamic presence are the letters “ISBR” for Islamic Society of Basking Ridge that Chaudry has pasted on the mailbox.
Inside the house is a small, modest makeshift prayer space in what looks like the dining room. An emerald green prayer rug lays diagonally across a pale brown carpet. Rows of framed, stitched calligraphy hang across ecru walls, a subtle reminder of Mecca, because the same gold embroidery can be seen on the Kiswah, a black brocade cloth that covers the Ka’bah shrine of Islam’s most sacred place on earth.
“It just says that God is allpowerful,” reads Chaudry “and that he’s the one who gives life, and other expressions like that.”
It is clear that Chaudry is a nester. In a house he plans to knock down as soon as permission comes, he continues to decorate with his finest, most personal items from his travels around the world embroidery from a trip to Cairo, prayer mats from Turkey, and other sacred items of the Islamic faith.
In the post 9/11 era, these reminders of alien Muslim lands have often been the targets of vandalism episodes spurred by events abroad, controversies at home, or memories from the past. A year ago, the attacks on the Benghazi Consulate caused a man to vandalize the Masjid Darul Quran on Long Island. A similar vandalism of a mosque in Oklahoma City may have been sparked by the Boston bombings. The Murfreesboro mosque was both a subject of arson and bomb threats.
I asked Ali if he had experienced any form of harassment. “No harassment,” he asserted and continued to flip through digital files on his lap top. “None?” I questioned. “It’s been civil,” he replied. “It’s been very quiet.”
On the mailbox below the “ISBR” lettering and adjacent to a dangling American flag is a large oval dent. Ali later revealed that someone had picked up the mailbox, dumped it on the ground, and the stomped on it. He reported the incident to the police but requested it be kept quiet so it “didn’t become an issue.”
The police asked Ali to make sure to provide security to the townhouse, which now has four cameras installed in the main areas, and in the front yard and back.
Muslims not only must be vigilant against vandalism and other attacks on their mosques, but they also endure the annoyance sometimes at the level of harassment of constant scrutiny from law enforcement. In New York, the police department under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has remained largely hushhush in response to accusations that the department deployed informants and undercover agents to infiltrate nearly every facet of Muslim life. But in a botched explanation of the sixyear probe, the Mayor likened the intensive surveillance of Muslim communities to a campaign to eradicate the measles. "If you want to look for cases of measles, you'll find a lot more of them among young people,” he said. “That's not targeting young people to go see whether they have measles or not.” The Associated Press has reported that mosques, student groups, cafes, and bookstores from Westchester to New Jersey have been under watch for the purpose of identifying a “source” in every mosque within a 250mile radius.
This secretive surveillance constitutes an eerie, topdown scrutiny on the country’s Islamic houses of worship. The “national security” argument provided by the NYPD is both dangerous and dubious; a telling tale of the suspicion of Muslims that touches all levels of American society. The largest municipal police force in the country bolstering this suspicion with millions of dollars, hundreds of men, and years of monitoring, undoubtedly lends a sense of moral legitimacy to those community residents who resist the construction of a local mosques.
“The government sends the message, we still think this is acceptable. We think it’s acceptable to treat Muslims differently,” LevinsonWaldmen, the lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, said. “I could see that filtering down to a community or a town. Thinking well, if the police department, if the FBI thinks there is reason to worry about this entire group, then I do, too.”
“National security” is one of the most defining themes of the new century and mosques are a frontline target. The NYPD surveillance assures the any local mosque controversy can be catapulted, with legitimacy, to national significance. This affirmation energizes religiousbased opposition, obscuring any genuine landuse complaints and the zoning and planning processes as a whole. In this context, Chaudry’s decision to leave religion out of the equation makes more sense. The NYPD’s surveillance smacks of the same muted bias that motivates many community opposition movements. Post 9/11, the climate welcomes prejudice that can find cover behind a legitimate national concern.
Although many people oppose profiling, said McGoldrick the Muslim American activist, “some people in the middle don’t necessarily see anything wrong with it and that is what is really scary.”
“Every chapter of racism is different,” he went on, “but they all seemed legitimate at the time. The Chinese were going to flood the country. The Italians were anarchists. The Germans were Nazi. The Japanese might destroy the country.”
Politicians have also amplified these issues of previously local concern. While a number of politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, condemned opposition to Park51, political actors also played a key role in hyping up the controversy.
Geller initially brought attention to the development in December of 2009 and again in May of 2010 on her blog but the issue did not come to national attention until the New York Post ran the story “Mosque Madness around Ground Zero.” Other mainstream outlets then began to pick up the story, and politicians from Howard Dean to John Mccain and Sarah Palin went on the attack against the facility.
After one of the most heated public debates in the metropolitan area in years, Park51 opened its doors in peace on a Wednesday night in the Fall of 2011.
“Aside from the cop car that sits outside the building 24/7 and a number of burly, blackclad bouncers, Park51’s recent history was little in evidence,” wrote Mark Jacobson in New York Magazine of the Islamic Center’s debut. “Standing there, two blocks away from the crews working on the Freedom Tower, it left you wondering what all that business last year was truly about.”
Some observers have suggested that it was the impending midterm elections that incited the controversy. Park51 served as a proxy, playing off the fiery topic of antiimmigration and a “nonwhite” America, a sentiment with potential to usher widespread fringe appeal.
For years, a proposal in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn struggled against the dedicated opposition of a residents group called “The Bay People.” The spar over the threestory mosque made national headlines , and Geller wrote a number of blog posts attacking the “megamosque.” She even appeared at a protest in 2011. After the facility had won court support, State Senator David Storobin issued a series of public statements raising concerns that the mosque backers, the Muslim American Society, were supported by Hezbollah and Hamas and thus posed a threat to “public safety.” At the time Storobin was running for reelection in the new Midwood district populated mostly by ultraOrthodox Jews. Storobin eventually lost the race, but he was not the only politician to take on the Bay Peoples’ concerns. U.S. Rep. Bob Turner met with community members and pleaded with zoning officials to stop the mosque. Borough President Marty Markowtiz joined the opposition and sent a letter of similar tone to Mayor Bloomberg. Last September, a group of young Muslims handed out school supplies to impoverished families in front of the mosque under construction. Still, although their battle had been lost long ago, two men glared at them from across the street, holding signs of protest.
The extremist sentiment that has trickled down through society, unable to survive in its more virulent original form, it has been boiled down into something the American public can stomach energized by the media, vocalized by our politicians, and seasoned with legitimacy by the officers in our police departments. A magnifying glass has transformed these local issues into contorted, prolonged, exacerbated international spectacles. A template for mosquefighting has emerged. It calls for suspicion to energize the opposition and for the pretext of national security, buttressed by everyday local concerns, to guard prejudice. The voices from the fringe that now fill the dark hole that is the American understanding of Islam has been given decibel in our mainstream national dialogue.
“There are a lot of voices journalists, experts, congressional members saying the same thing as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer in mainstream political discourse,” said Haynes, who notes that over the past decade, 23 states have pushed for antiSharia laws. “What used to be fringe is now almost acceptable,” Hayes said. “They have somehow raised enough fear and concern about this that they are taken seriously by some people.”
In the subway station at City Hall, the closest metro to Park51, is Geller’s most recent attack. On a cold, Tuesday in January of 2013, at midday, the subway is empty in the quiet before the city’s daily rush hour storm. A thud echoes through the long terminal when a man of Southeast Asian descent drops an empty Snapple bottle into a recently emptied garbage can. A middleaged man talking hasty Chinese into a bluetooth, paces back and forth in front of a young girl in oversized headphones sitting on a nearby bench.
A framed advertisement hangs above the waiting New Yorkers. It reads a verse from the Quran; "Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers." The words are placed beside a familiar image, the World Trade Centers in a cloud of smoke sliced by a plum of orange and red fire. It was Geller’s handiwork, part of a campaign she began waging the previous fall across the city’s subway system. It goes on: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man, Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Hanadi Doleh sees the ad every day on her commute to and from Park51. “Honestly, this one isn’t that bad,” she said. “It beats being called a savage, but I really don’t think that got to anyone, anyway.”
As the unapologetically spirited outreach coordinator at Park51, Hanadi’s goal is to make people anyone feel at home in the center. “I want you to feel comfortable. I want you to feel welcome, because you are,” she said in a slight Brooklyn accent to a tour group of college students. “You can ask me anything, I promise you really can’t offend us.”
Wearing a blue, floral headscarf, she patiently answered a series of questions about Al Qaeda, Muslims in America, and the role of women in Islam.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Hanadi is both an American and a New Yorker with strong connections to her Palestinian roots. She was in 11th grade when the planes struck the twin towers the day when “reality was no longer reality anymore,” she says. “I felt it in the air, I felt the tension.”
At the time, she was a student in a private Muslim school in Brooklyn. She remembers standing in the schoolyard on the day of the attacks when people began throwing glass bottles at her and her classmates. Vandalism and harassment became so severe that the school which taught students as young as Kindergartners had to be shut down for two months. For the rest of the academic year, police officers escorted the students to and from the facility.
“I rarely left the house,” she said. “My parents were so scared.”
The attack on 9/11 created a dangerous equivalent in which the “American” in American Muslim was forgotten; for many, it became natural to associate the masterminds of Al Qaeda with the local Muslim population.
“Al Qaeda used the name of Islam,” said Hanadi. “They used the face of Islam, but they are not Muslims.”
In court testimony in June 2012 court testimony, Thomas Galati, head of the city’s intelligence division, admitted that during the six years of NYPD surveillance, authorities were unable to produce a single lead that linked to a terrorist plot. Countless studies show that Muslim Americans are not becoming more radical, and on top of that, Islamic terrorism is barely a security threat in America. Outside of war zones, it has been estimated that the number of people killed annually around the world by Muslim terrorists is fewer than the number of people who die in bathtub drownings in the United States alone, according to Ohio State University professor John Mueller.
The decade we live in is, in fact, a decade of fear. Federal and state governments have spent roughly $75 billion annually on domestic security since the Sept. 11 attacks. With the American economy dwindling, it’s not surprising that the country is now questioning if the security splurge has been worth it. The NYPD mass surveillance is not the only project of highly dubious value. Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times reported that Cherry County in Nebraska received thousands of dollars for “cattle nose leads, halters, and electric prods in case terrorist decided to mount biological warfare against cows.” In Glendale, Los Angeles, police are now equipped with more than 200 BearCat armored vehicles, the same tanks that were used to fight insurgents in Baghdad.
“Not only is [[the NYPD surveillance of Muslim communities]] profoundly problematic in terms of people’s civil liberties, but it’s also a huge waste of time,” says LevinsonWaldmen.
Experts say that monitoring the Muslim community is just that, a waste of time and money. Even more importantly, this failed method of counterterrorism is entirely counterproductive. A study at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy concluded that mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of violence and militant Islam. It found that “mosque leaders put significant effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring antiviolence forums and scrutinizing teachers and texts.” Furthermore, a study released in 2011 by researchers from University of Washington and Harvard University found that involvement with a mosque increases integration into the U.S. political system and fosters support for democratic values. It’s the largest study of Muslim Americans to date. Post 9/11, imams have proven crucial informants for intelligence authorities and have continuously aided authorities in uncovering terrorist plots.
In the case of the Boston bombings, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are believed to have been selfradicalized by the Internet. The two were not active members of a local mosque and it was reported that Tamerlan was even thrown out of a Cambridge mosque for protesting an imam who was praising Martin Luther King.
In Somerset County, where Basking Ridge is located, Chaudry and his congregation are among an estimated 3,274 Muslims, according to 2010 estimates of the Association of Religion Data Archives. If citizens are genuinely concerned about security, shouldn’t they be begging for a mosque in their town?
“If we had a way to move the needle so the public could know the facts, then I think people would react differently,” said Haynes. “But we are behind, ten years of this kind of propaganda and it’s hard to overcome . . . We are really playing catch up.”
Today, Chaudry holds Friday Jumu’ah prayer in the Township Community Center he helped build as a community leader over a decade ago. The facility’s building and the surrounding sprawling suburban green are clearly not intended to host Islam’s most obligatory and holy prayer of the week. Chaudry spends most of the hour past noon running between the various small rooms in which he has had to disperse the members of his congregation. Since the main room’s occupancy caps at 40 people, he has set up an improvised videoaudio system to broadcast the sermon to the additional 20 attendees in the building’s garage. Chaudry hustles into the garage for Salah where a computer broadcasts live video of the Imam from the main room. He lowers himself to rest on his heels and pray briefly before he is interrupted to wiggle the mousepad to wake the computer monitor from screensaver mode.
The need for a proper mosque could not be more evident. “As our congregation grew, so did the need for something local...something to identify with,” he said. It has been a slow and steady process since the 1970s, when Chaudry himself had to travel more than an hour and a half from Basking Ridge to find a place to worship. Gradually, as the Muslim population of the region grew, locations closer to home became possible. Chaudry quickly became the local Islamic point person. “I was getting calls from people in the area,” he explained, “because I was active and doing a lot of work especially after 9/11, telling people about Islam and answering their questions and so forth.
“Anyone who typed in ‘Basking Ridge’ and ‘Islam’ on the Internet would find my name and phone number. So people would call me up and say ‘Where’s the mosque?’”
Chaudry’s congregation now hosts a plethora of charity events, Sunday school classes, and, of course, Jumu’ah prayer. The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge started with just 12 people before it grew into a vibrant and involved congregation of 60. Chaudry smiled at his recounting of this brief history, pausing for a rare moment of pride and accomplishment before snapping quickly back to defense.
The growth, Chaudry is quick to add, has leveled off in the last two years, as if to counter a recent focus of the mosque’s opponents, that population growth will present a further problem for the community. “Like with all memberships,” he said, rehearsing his argument, “initially you get the peak once people become aware of it. Then it stabilizes.” He continued on to explain estimate methods behind his team’s population projections.
Chaudry’s set piece arguments are a telling effect of the burdens of constant scrutiny. Two years after the exposé of the NYPD surveillance, the massive counterterrorism tactic has proven not only ineffective, but has also strained the department’s relationship with the nation’s most critical counterterrorism ally inside the country the Muslim American community. Estimates find that 40 percent of all domestic terrorism plots have been uncovered or deterred with assistance from members of the U.S. Muslim community.
Advocates of the NYPD surveillance argue that the targets should have nothing to fear, if there is nothing to hide. But reports and studies reveal an eerie backlash, feelings of isolation, outrage, and betrayal throughout the same longstanding Muslim community that watched the city’s twin towers fall.
“I felt like all the sudden I was secondclass,” said Sarah Mirza, a member of the Muslim Students Association who was reportedly monitored in the surveillance project. Mirza a Texas native now works for the United Nations Development Programme and is studying for her masters at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service.
“It made absolutely no sense to me, the majority of us are first or second generation Americans.” At the time, Mirza was working at a city agency with close connections to Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
“I felt weird and unsettled about working in and contributing to the administration that was spying on me and my friends,” she said. The 23yearold was further disturbed by her own parents recommendation that she distance herself from the Muslim community.
The invasive program reportedly even went so far as to have undercover agents “bait” Muslims into making inflammatory remarks. Shamiur Rahman, a 19yearold American of Bangladeshi descent and former NYPD informant, told the Associated Press that the NYPD told him to “create and capture.” The process involved him “creating” a dialogue about terrorism, then “capturing” the Muslims in conversation. Rahman said his work earned him up to $1,000 a month and “goodwill” from the police after a series of marijuanarelated arrests.
A report called “Mapping Muslims; NYPD spying and its impact on Muslim Americans” reveals the chilling effects of the NYPD surveillance on a Muslim community that has since become increasingly isolated.
“The students wouldn't come to the prayer room," a leader of a Muslim student group said in the report. "They felt they couldn't meet in their own space. The idea of being surveilled for a 19 or 20yearold is a terrifying thing."
The surveillance resulted in decreased mosque attendance, hesitancy to engage politically or civically, censorship, and paranoia within and outside the community. Additionally, the report finds that the probe “has severed the trust that should exist between the police department and the communities it is charged with protecting.”
The controversy surrounding Park51 prompted the NYPD to post an officer outside the lowerManhattan facility at all times, said Hanadi, presumably to guard against vandalism.
“I began to wonder what that officer was really doing out there,” Hanadi said of her reaction to the discovery of the NYPD surveillance.
With a nation’s enlightenment, evolution, and expanding cultural liberalism, there still remains the reality of growing pains. In an age when industrialized, progressive countries tout universal egalitarianism, Muslim Americans are fighting prejudice under the veil of 21st century humanitarian victories. Laws, statutes, and landmark Supreme Court decisions do not overturn decades of sentiment, hostility, and rivalries. Post 9/11, Islamic terrorism became the new threat to the American way of life and America’s mosques were thrust uneasily upon a new fault line. The line remains obscure a fault line between civil liberties and national security, the reality of what it means to be American in a truly immigrant nation.
“The 9/11 attackers were labelled ‘Muslim terrorists’ and evil personified was given a Muslim face,” writes South African apartheid activist Desmond Tutu. “This logic went, Muslims were not to be trusted. The West developed special security procedures and sophisticated software to identify and track Muslims. Adherents of the Muslim faith were harassed and humiliated across the world. It was the computerage equivalent of the Nazis daubing yellow Stars of David on the doors of Jewish homes.”
The World Trade Center collapsed and Muslim Americans, too, were killed. Mosques across the country held services or remembrances, Islamic groups offered relief, and Muslim Americans enlisted to fight in the coming “War on Terrorism.” So many times, American Muslims have claimed that that their religion was hijacked on that fateful day. In the years following, many Muslims like Chaudry fought back to reclaim the faith of their ancestors, families, and friends writing books, speaking at lectures, and asserting boldly that being Muslim could, in fact, mean loving America.
Hanadi dressed in a hijab and a full Islamic gown watched in terror from the window of her highschool as the plane hit the second twin tower. “There was debris flying. It was crazy,” she said.
Like many of her fellow citizens, Hanadi would soon learn what it meant to be Muslim in the era to come. Muslim Americans learned alongside the rest of nation of the wicked nature of Al Qaeda and the brutality of the Taliban. They too, learned of a darkness, previously distant and unbeknown. But for Muslim Americans, this darkness would now be associated with their faith their God, their prayer, and their salvation. Any fight they would make in defense of their Islam, would be seen by many as an ode to the same darkness that terrorized a nation no longer theirs over a decade ago.