Battles over mosques are on the rise

A stalled construction site on a quiet, tree-lined street in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, has divided the neighborhood.

Muslims plan to build a mosque and Islamic center there, and some residents say it is an unwelcome presence.

The site is one of nine battles over building new mosques in New York State. While opposition to a proposed Islamic center in the vicinity of the World Trade Center has become a nationally-known flashpoint, clashes in Brooklyn, Staten Island and upstate New York have gone largely unnoticed outside their neighborhoods.

Efforts to keep the mosques from opening amount to an attack on religious freedom, contends the New York Civil Liberties Union, which documented the controversies in a report released in August.

In Manhattan, the report says, “the government was outspoken in support of religious liberty,” but “Muslim congregations around New York State are being targeted…for their religious briefs and practices.” The report documents controversies in Brooklyn, Staten Island, three Long Island towns and three upstate.

A neighbor of the proposed Brooklyn mosque insisted his concern is not the nature of the congregation but the character of the community.

“This is a small street,” said Victor B., who has lived in Sheepshead Bay for 12 years (and who asked that his last name not be published). “It will bring in heavy traffic, noise, pollution,” he said, adding that he was concerned about the noise and inconvenience of construction and the parking problems that will follow.

“If a synagogue was built here, or a church, or any other commercial building, we would be against it as well as a mosque,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the religion. We never had a problem with the Muslim community here before. We don’t have a problem now.”

But Allowey Ahmed, the developer of the mosque and community center and a Brooklyn resident, believes those who oppose the building are actually opposing a basic right to religious freedom in America.

They are against the right to worship, Ahmed said. “As if we have no right, as if we are not Americans, as if we aren’t allowed to worship because of our religion.”

In Staten Island, neighbors greeted an effort to open a mosque with charges that it would harbor terrorists, according to the NYCLU, whose study was first reported by the blog of Long Island Wins, an organization devoted to immigration issues.

“Wouldn’t you agree that every terrorist, past and present, has come out of a mosque?” asked a woman who spoke at a meeting attended by more than 400 people, according to the NYCLU report.

The Muslim American Society (MAS) chapter seeking to purchase a vacant convent in the Midland Beach neighborhood was unable to close the sale once the protests began.

But the organization used lessons learned from that defeat to succeed in the Dongan Hills section of Staten Island. In July, it converted what was once a Hindu temple into a mosque and community center.

Dr. Mohamed Sadeia, a physical therapist and president of MAS in Staten Island, said, “We figured out from last time we need to reach to the community ourselves, and that we should introduce ourselves to our neighbors before anyone else informs them about us.”

So they passed out pamphlets, went door-to-door, and hosted an open house in the weeks before the official opening of the mosque.

Sadeia says the same people travel to oppose each proposed mosque. He calls them “The Bus Group,” and says they use local forums to spread “hatred and bad ideas” about Islam.

“I thought they shared the same idea as the Islamic extremists,” he continued. “They share the same goal: ‘America is in war with Islam.’ They share that and they try to tell the Muslim community there is no place here unless you give up your religion.”

Ernest L., who has lived in Dongan Hills for seven years, said he doesn’t mind the location of the mosque and community center in Staten Island. He lives across the street from the tangerine-colored building, and said that his main gripe was the increased traffic on his street during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“They have their right to practice their religion,” Ernest said. “Where else can you have a mosque on one block and a church on another?”

“We aren’t here to bother anybody, said Shireen Tayeh, a worshipper, just after a recent Friday afternoon prayer. “We are here to practice our faith, and that’s all we want to do.”

Another worshiper chimed in: “The bottom line is, if you can hear church bells, then why can’t you hear the athan?”—the Islamic call to prayer.

Allowey Ahmed of the Sheepshead Bay center said he believes this kind of anti-mosque activity is a reflection of a growing Islamophobia. But he remains hopeful that through these community centers and interfaith dialogue, the Muslim congregation will become just another typical neighbor on a typical street in Brooklyn.

“I’ve been in Brooklyn where blacks were hated most,” Ahmed said. “And before that, it was the Jews that were hated, and before them probably the Italians. I guess it’s our turn now. But hopefully we will pass that.”


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