Efforts to establish Islamic institutions in some homogenous suburban and rural areas are being met with hostility.
BY MERIS LUTZ
ATLANTA – Masjid Al-Mu’minun, a mosque in south Atlanta, is one of the few that play the call to prayer over external speakers, letting the sound drift through the neighborhood. Ahmed Najee-ullah, a leader in the congregation, said neighbors set their watches by it.
“We are in those parts of the African-American community where a lot of people wouldn’t venture and the communities that we’re in appreciate us being there,” he said. “They have this perception that we represent the best in them.”
Najee-ullah is one of many Black Americans who converted to Islam during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s. He said mosques are welcomed as beacons of stability in many Black neighborhoods.
Town opposes mosque
Things have changed in the decades since Masjid Al-Mu’minun opened in the early ’80s. As the U.S. Muslim population grows, communities are seeking to establish Islamic institutions such as mosques, schools and cemeteries in otherwise homogenous suburban and rural areas.
These efforts can be met with hostility.
In Newton County, Ga., hundreds turned out to oppose a proposed mosque during a town hall meeting in August.
“(Muslims) carry hate and it is known in their faith that all infidels will die if you don’t believe like they believe,” one woman said. “I don’t want to see our town destroyed.”
Her sentiment was echoed by dozens of speakers.
Versions of this have played out across the United States in recent years. Controversies over Muslim worship centers appears to coincide with a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric and activity.
Hate crimes increase
A study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the University of California, San Bernardino, found that hate crimes against Muslims increased 78 percent in 2015. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has warned that 2016 is on track to surpass that.
Over the summer, a Muslim woman was set on fire on a New York City street and a Florida mosque was torched. Three Kansas men were arrested and charged with a bomb plot targeting Somali Muslims.
While the government does not collect information about religious affiliation on the census, the Pew Research Center estimated there were 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States in 2015.
About 1.7 million of them, according to Pew, immigrated from 1992 to 2012. The Muslim population is expected to reach 8.1 million by 2050, or 2.1 percent of the total population.
Split on response
The Atlanta area, like many cities, is home to a large, diverse Muslim community, although there are no numbers available.
Conversations with Muslim residents and community leaders in Georgia reveal a split in opinion on how to respond to anti-Muslim animosity.
Based on these interviews, American-born children of immigrants and African-American Muslims, whose history of activism is often overlooked in the broader conversation about Islam in America, tend toward a less apologetic approach.
Older, immigrant Muslims may tread more cautiously, eschewing lawsuits and official complaints in favor of working behind the scenes to assuage the fears of non-Muslims, even when faced with threats of violence.
Imam preaches patience
When opponents of the Newton County mosque called it a terrorist training ground, Imam Mohammad Islam counseled his congregation, which bought the property to use primarily as a cemetery, to be patient.
Several weeks later, a local militia shot a menacing video at the site in which a man calling himself General Blood Agent disparaged Muslims as followers of the Antichrist. The imam did not call in the police, although the county deemed the video threatening enough to cancel a scheduled meeting to address the mosque.
“We’re not going to go and take shelter in the law,” said Islam, who arrived from Bangladesh over 20 years ago and now ministers to a congregation in Doraville. “I believe if we are patient, we are tolerant, we depend on God almighty.”
Meanwhile, against the imam’s wishes, the Georgia branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called the Justice Department and led the charge to publicly shame the county for its handling of the case.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the executive director of CAIR Georgia, said that while he respected the imam’s position as a matter of religious principle, he felt he had a duty as an attorney and the leader of a civil rights organization to take a stand.
As the plan for a mosque became common knowledge, the county commission issued a temporary moratorium on all new places of worship, an act CAIR called discriminatory.
County Commissioner John Douglas told a local newspaper he feared the mosque would make Newton a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East.
The commission then held two public meetings to discuss the mosque, even though the property owner had no business before the county.
“When a government violates the Constitution, then I have to put my foot down,” Mitchell said. Of the militia, he said: “Some people, you cannot negotiate with. Some people will not respond to kind acts and warm smiles.”
Mitchell, who is Black, said he embraced Islam as a teenager, having been raised by a Unitarian Christian mother and a father who converted to Islam as a college student.
“That unique background that African-Americans have experienced in this country, winning a fight for civil rights, I think, informs how we deal today with violations of our civil rights,” Mitchell said.
Muslim immigrants, he added, may come from countries where criticizing the government could land a person in jail or worse.
“If you come from a culture that is not accustomed to speaking up against authority, then you might have a different way of dealing with discrimination here in America,” Mitchell said.
But Imam Islam, who objected to CAIR’s methods, also rejected this characterization.
“We know that there’s a Constitution, what is our right, we know it, so don’t think we are not aware or we don’t know,” he said. “We will give time, and time is the best thing to heal any scar.”
The controversy over the Newton County mosque and cemetery appears to have resolved itself after the temporary moratorium on new places of worship expired, the congregation conducted a monthlong outreach campaign, and CAIR threatened legal action.
Meanwhile, Muslim community leaders say mosques are vital bulwarks against Islamophobia and radicalization.