Fear and ignorance defeat a mosque

Christopher Baum reports on how zoning board hearings are now battlegrounds for anti-Muslim forces like those who blocked a proposed mosque in Bayonne, New Jersey.

Opponents of the planned mosque in Bayonne, New JerseyOpponents of the planned mosque in Bayonne, New Jersey

A PROPOSAL that would have cleared the way for a Muslim community in Bayonne, New Jersey, to begin construction on the first mosque in the city's history was defeated on March 6, after a long and contentious meeting of the Bayonne Zoning Board of Adjustment in which blatant Islamophobic propaganda was shamefully permitted to play a starring role.

A report from WNYC gives examples of the behavior on display that night:

When Muslim men gathered in a corner of the room at Bayonne High School to pray before the meeting began, opponents of the mosque began the Christian Lord's Prayer in response. When a supporter of the mosque said discriminating against Muslims is akin to saying, "Catholics are rapists," he was shouted down.

And when an opponent, Ledia Elraheb, took the podium to loudly read what she described as violent passages from the Koran, the Bayonne zoning board chairman allowed her to continue until she yelled, "How many children have died under this so-called religion?"

Another resident, John White, called for an ideological test, saying the Muslims should be asked about their beliefs before getting a house of worship. "What do they believe?" he asked. [...]

Two men who identified themselves as non-Muslim Egyptians said the mosque should be rejected because Muslims are violent; one said his "uncle got slaughtered in the road because he's Christian."

Board chairman Mark Urban did eventually admonish the audience for bringing religion into the discussion. "We're not going there," he said at one point, according to an Associated Press report. "This is a zoning issue only."

"Some of the comments I heard and some of the actions I've seen, I tell you, as a Bayonne resident my whole life, it embarrasses me," Urban said later, according to WNYC. "And it's on both sides. This issue got out of hand."

The issue certainly did get out of hand. The question is why Urban and his colleagues allowed it to happen--why, for instance, they permitted Ledia Elraheb to bring her hate-filled speech to its vile climax before anyone bothered to intervene. If, as Urban said, "We're not going there," then why were so many people allowed to go precisely there?

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THE MOSQUE was first publicly proposed in August 2015, when Bayonne Muslims, a non-profit community group providing services to roughly 100 Muslim families in the area, announced plans to convert a disused warehouse into the Bayonne Mosque and Community Center, a facility that would include a prayer hall, classrooms, offices, a library and a fitness and game room.

At that time, the Muslim community in Bayonne had been meeting in a rented space in the basement of St Henry's, a local Catholic school, for about six years. The proposed mosque would at last give them a permanent home of their own. But before they could proceed with the project, Bayonne Muslims needed to secure approval from the city's zoning board.

According to the Hudson Reporter, the mosque proposal would have required land use variances with regard to number of parking spaces, curb width and buffer zone (a neutral space that is normally mandated between properties in different zoning categories).

The first public hearing on the mosque proposal was held in January 2016 and lasted almost three hours. Subsequent hearings were scheduled for March, May, and June 2016, but each of these was postponed--the first due to Bayonne Muslims' attorney having fallen ill, the next two due to ongoing disagreements about a traffic analysis.

"The city wasn't happy with our initial traffic study," Bayonne Muslims Secretary Waheed Akbar explained to Socialist Worker. "So we spent months working with their traffic experts and our traffic experts, until finally towards the end of the year we were able to give them the information they wanted, in the form they wanted it in."

With this study finally completed, another hearing was scheduled for January 2017. This one lasted five hours. "The whole meeting was about the traffic study," Akbar said, though he added that many of the questions posed by community members were "off topic." At one point, Akbar noted, "Somebody asked our traffic expert, 'Have you ever been in a mosque?'"

Despite its epic length, this meeting, too, ended without a vote being taken. Finally, on March 6, after an even longer hearing (nearly six hours from start to finish) that was more about prejudice than traffic patterns, the board handed down its decision. The final vote was 4-3 in favor of the mosque proposal--one vote shy of the five needed for approval.

Sadly, the Muslim community in Bayonne is now without even a temporary place of worship. Akbar informed Socialist Worker that in February, Bayonne Muslims lost their lease on the basement space at St. Henry's. Now, not only must the group decide how to move forward with their plans for a permanent home, they must find a new temporary home as well.

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ZONING BOARD meetings are typically rather dry affairs that attract little public attention. But as in many similar cases in recent years, the Bayonne mosque proposal attracted significant opposition from the very beginning. While some opponents were careful to couch their remarks in terms of zoning issues such as parking, noise and traffic congestion, others made no secret of their bigotry.

Some of the most vocal opponents of the proposal organized a Stop the Mosque in Bayonne Facebook page. Not surprisingly, this page has very little to say about zoning issues--apart from a prominently featured photo of a grinning man holding a sign saying, in obvious mockery of the Black Lives Matter movement, "Zoning Laws Matter".

What the page contains a great deal of, instead, is inflammatory anti-Muslim imagery and propaganda, including a sign reading "Democracy, Not Sharia Law," a photograph of the World Trade Center bearing the caption "#NeverForget" and a popular right-wing meme featuring a notorious anti-Muslim quotation from Winston Churchill.

Defeating the mosque proposal for this crowd clearly had nothing to do with zoning and everything to do with Islamophobia.

The organized hatred faced by the Muslim community in Bayonne is by no means unique. In recent years, zoning rules have increasingly been used as cover for bigoted attacks on minority communities seeking to build places of worship and religious schools and community centers.

These attacks tend to follow a well-defined pattern. First, opponents of the proposal do their best to pack public hearings with "concerned" citizens who will speak out, not about the zoning issues under consideration, but about the supposed horrors that the religious group represents.

With the openly xenophobic angle thus covered, board members and more circumspect citizens can limit their discussion to "respectable" concerns such as parking, traffic congestion, noise, and the like, all the while distancing themselves from their fellow citizens' more hateful remarks--but not until after those remarks have been given the fullest possible airing.

In this way, having permitted the debate to be hijacked by xenophobes, the board can still pretend when is it time to vote (perhaps even to themselves) that they are concerned solely with zoning issues.

As we have seen, this is essentially what happened in Bayonne. Whether or not the zoning board members themselves harbored any anti-Muslim bias, they permitted one speaker after another to openly demonstrate their own anti-Muslim biases.

Despite its (belated) insistence that this was "a zoning issue only", the board allowed the discussion to be taken over repeatedly by bigots who wanted to make it about Islam instead, which fatally compromised the integrity of the proceedings.

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SINCE 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has investigated a number of similar situations as part of its enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which is meant to "protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws."

The evidence suggests that discrimination of this kind is a growing problem, especially for Muslim communities. In a report issued in July 2016, the DOJ noted that "the percentage of Department RLUIPA investigations involving mosques or Islamic schools has risen dramatically... from 15 percent in the 2000 to August 2010 period to 38 percent during the period from September 2010 to the present."

In many RLUIPA cases, once the DOJ gets involved, the dispute ends up being resolved without going to court. But here, too, the report reveals a particularly troubling situation for Muslim communities:

While 84 percent of non-Muslim investigations opened by the Department resulted in a positive resolution without the United States or private parties filing suit, in mosque and Islamic school cases, only 20 percent have resulted in a positive resolution without the filing of an RLUIPA suit. Seven of the last eight RLUIPA land use cases filed by the Department have involved mosques or Islamic schools. While it is encouraging that so many RLUIPA cases are resolved once a local government is informed of its obligations under RLUIPA, the sharp disparity between Muslim and non-Muslim cases in this regard is cause for concern.

These words were written last July. If local governments in the final years of the Obama administration already felt emboldened to discriminate more blatantly against Muslims than against other groups, and to dig in their heels even when challenged by the DOJ, how much worse are things likely to get now that the openly anti-Muslim Donald Trump is in the White House?

Moreover, with the equally Islamophobic Jeff Sessions in charge of the DOJ as Trump's Attorney General, to what extent will the DOJ even continue to take on Muslim-related RLUIPA cases?

A clue may soon be provided by another case involving a New Jersey town that rejected a mosque proposal on the grounds of zoning requirements. On January 3, a federal judge ruled that Bernards Township discriminated against the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge by requiring more parking spots for its proposed mosque than were required for other houses of worship in the community. If the township chooses to appeal that verdict, the DOJ's response may be very revealing.

Or perhaps the Bayonne case itself may shed some light on what the future holds. Akbar informed Socialist Worker that the DOJ has been in touch with Bayonne Muslims' attorney in the days since the zoning board handed down its vote on March 6. "It was a good conversation," he said. "We'll see what happens."

Even if the DOJ comes through in both cases, we can't rely on the executive branch of government to right these wrongs for us. The bigots, clearly, are organizing, so we must organize as well.

Organized protests are required to support and defend our Muslim neighbors, oppose the attempts of the hateful to hijack and poison public hearings and to hold local officials accountable for doing their jobs in a manner that is truly just and free from prejudice.