Across New Jersey, Local Islamophobes Crusade to Drive Islam Underground

Grassroots campaigns attempt to prevent Muslims from practicing their religion in their own neighborhoods.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made international headlines when he vowed to shutter mosques and ban Muslims from entering America. Even the GOP establishment favorite, Senator Marco Rubio, suggested closing not only mosques, but any place where Muslims gather, while Senator Ted Cruz declared that if he was elected president, he would allow only Christian refugees to enter the country, excluding all Muslims.

The Islamophobic bluster of Republican presidential candidates mirrors campaigns taking place at the grassroots level and often away from the national media’s gaze. In northern New Jersey, just a few miles from New York City, local residents incited into a rabid anti-Muslim frenzy are banding together to stop mosque construction. From Bayonne to Bernards, they have devoted their energy and resources to preventing Muslims from practicing their religion in their own neighborhoods.

In the city of Bayonne, residents gathered outside the municipal building on January 19 to protest the application of a group called the Bayonne Muslims to convert an abandoned industrial property into a mosque. Waheed Akbar, who volunteers as a secretary for Bayonne Muslims, said that about 25 to 30 anti-Muslim demonstrators crowded outside the municipal building, chanting and holding signs, prior to the first evening of testimony the group would present to the city’s zoning board. Akbar said one of the signs read, “Donald Trump help us stop the mosque,” and protesters chanted, “Mosque comes, mayor goes!”

Several Bayonne residents couched their Islamophobic politics behind concerns about the traffic a new mosque would supposedly bring. According to Akbar, anti-mosque protesters would often follow concerns about traffic with statements like, “September 11 happened right in our backyard,” exposing their bigoted agenda.

“There are some ignorant people,” Akbar said. “It’s not just the majority of the town. It’s just a very, very small minority. We felt that it is best to just leave them and ignore them, because people see through them. An educated person can see exactly what they are doing.”

The street Bayonne Muslims is eyeing is among the most blighted in the city, a short, dead-end block with little greenery. There are three residential homes there, along with three vacant industrial properties, two of which are used to dump refuse. When asked why some residents would be opposed to seeing the area improved, Akbar pointed to an obstinate local culture. “The people have been here for a long time and they just don’t want anything changed,” he said.

The rancorous discussion at City Hall continued throughout the evening. During the meeting one resident demanded to know if he would be able “to come to the mosque and pray to Jesus Christ.” Another asked if the mosque would practice “Sharia law,” echoing one of the most popular fears of anti-Muslim forces. A few protesters claimed their Muslim neighbors were “moving into” their city to build a mosque, as if they were invading from the outside, when in fact the mosque members are not new to the community at all. Although the group formed in 2007, Bayonne Muslims members have always lived in the city: they own homes, go to the schools, support local businesses and pay taxes. Bayonne Muslims have held services out of two rooms rented in a school in the city for the past seven years. Now the group just wants a space of their own in the community where they live and serve.

The outpouring of hatred has sent a chill through the local Muslim community. “You feel left out because you think that you are part of the community; and we have been and we are law-abiding citizens, we love charity, and we love community service and we’ve done that; even in this city for the last seven years we have participated in food drives and can drives and feeding the poor, and even when the hurricanes hit we were volunteering,” Waheed Akbar said.

Bernards Township declares a mosque “environmentally sensitive”

Bayonne is not the only place in New Jersey where Muslims face discrimination as they attempt to open a place to worship. In December 2015, after a four-year application process, the planning board in the township of Bernards denied a proposal from the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) to build a mosque in its picturesque, upper-class community.

During the process, many township residents presented bitter arguments to dissuade the planning board from approving the ISBR application. The street ISBR wanted to build on is busy, with multiple types of properties including homes, a school, a Presbyterian church and a fire house, yet one resident argued that a mosque wasn’t compatible with anything that was already there. Another person insisted that building a mosque would erase the community’s historic character, while another said a mosque would ruin the community’s tranquil character. One objected to ISBR’s goal of improving relations between Muslims and members of other faiths on the grounds that building a mosque would only increase social friction.

As they ramped up their campaign, local anti-Muslim forces formed a group called the Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development and hired an attorney to argue that the mosque wasn’t in fact a “house of worship,” but an “institution.” The argument was so bizarre that the planning board refused to consider its final decision. The members of Islamic Society of Basking Ridge are currently weighing their options on whether or not they will sue the township of Bernards for denying the application and declined to comment on their experience.

When it sought to construct a mosque in Wayne Township in northern New Jersey, the Albanian Associated Fund was plunged into a byzantine four-year application process between 2002 to 2006. In the end, Wayne Township suddenly decided to initiate eminent domain proceedings on the property it wanted to construct a mosque on and discontinue the application. The Albanian Fund successfully sued Wayne Township for violating the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions from discriminatory zoning practices. In its decision, the court showed how the township broke longstanding practices, including prolonging the hearing process to thwart approval. The township held more than 20 meetings and cost the Albanian Fund $200,000 to $300,000 in additional expenditures to perform studies, modify the proposal and provide expert testimonies only to decide to take the land.

During the hearing process, NJ Assemblyman Scott Rumana, the township mayor at the time, suddenly and inexplicably classified the property that was to be converted into a mosque as “environmentally sensitive,” and said it should be protected. However, prior to the Albanian Fund submitting its building application, the township heard two proposals to build on the site, and in neither case was the property deemed environmentally sensitive. The court said Wayne’s claim that it commenced eminent domain proceedings to preserve the land, “rings hollow,” and that in reality Wayne was, “simply trying to keep the mosque out of the township.”

Like the residents in Bernards, a group of objectors from Wayne formed a coalition called the Property Protection Group and hired a lawyer to help them flight the application. During the hearing process, PPG members posed as classic not-in-my-backyard activists, disguising their Islamophobic agenda by claiming that the construction of a mosque in their community would be a “public nuisance.” At another point, they demanded a list of all the members of the mosque, creating an air of suspicion around the local Muslim community.

One member of the Albanian Fund testified in court to the hostility of the PPG: “The cold hatred in the faces of the neighbors, the palpable tension in the hearing room, the snide remarks and the people jumping out of their seats when we would describe our prayer rituals and religious practices made it very clear. There was also lots of sarcasm directed at us by the large group of objectors who were in attendance at every hearing on our application. None of this is evident from the dry words of the transcripts, but it was palpable during the hearings.”

The court demonstrated with cold, hard evidence that the religiously motivated hostility of the residents influenced the township to commence eminent domain proceedings. Following the lawsuit, the Albanian Fund postponed its plans to build in Wayne. The group remained at its original location, miles away in Paterson, until it moved to another location in a drab office park in Riverdale in 2015.  

Zoning complaints

The township of Bridgewater didn’t get the memo about Wayne’s mistakes. This township made similar spur-of-the-moment changes to its zoning rules on land a Muslim group called Al Falah Center owned that essentially invalidated the type of application it submitted to construct a mosque. Bridgewater Township was sued and had to pay out $5 million in damages to Al Falah Center. A court found that Bridgewater violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the group’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, among others. The court also ruled that the application must be heard without the new zoning rules.  

Bridgewater didn’t waste any time trying to disrupt Al Falah’s plans to construct a place to worship. The group submitted its application on Jan. 6, 2011 and by March 14, 2011, after only a handful of meetings, zoning rules were arbitrarily changed to stifle the process. During one of the few hearings held on the application, more than 400 residents showed up. When the crowd was told the meeting was rescheduled to find a location suitable to fit everyone, one person was overheard saying, “Just gives us more time to plan a strategy to stop this thing.” When Al Falah’s supporters spoke during hearings, they were hectored by audience members who repeatedly barked, “Get out of Bridgewater!”

The residents of Bridgewater were far from alone in their resentment of their Muslim neighbors. According to the court that ruled on the case of Al Falah, one township official insisted that the proposed mosque be built elsewhere and declared that even if the application was approved, any future requests to add onto the site would be “heavily scrutinized.”

According to Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty & National Security Program for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, “The legal system is and always has been critical in protecting rights. The problem is that litigation is expensive, burdensome and time-consuming. Al Falah was fortunate to have excellent, pro bono attorneys from the law firm of Arnold & Porter, who took on the case with zeal and took it through to a successful conclusion.”

Patel added, “The Bridgewater case involved both constitutional claims as well as claims under a law passed by Congress specifically to protect religious institutions. The court found that the Al Falah had provided enough indication of discrimination in the change of zoning rules that it was entitled to a preliminary injunction that led to settlement discussions and eventually to an agreement between the parties.”

Al Falah, like the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, the Bayonne Muslims and the Albanian Associated Fund were all renting space that was declared inadequate, thus limiting what they could do to serve the members of their community. They chose to find homes in these respective locations because they were central to where the members lived. In the end, each encountered bands of bigots cloaking their anti-Muslim resentment behind a wall of arbitrary bureaucratic complaints.

More often than not, applications to build or open mosques are approved, but when the bigots come out they can exhibit the worst parts of America. In 2008, when Rockaway Borough in northern Jersey approved an application to convert an office building into a mosque, a group of residents suddenly filed a lawsuit to reverse the town’s decision. Fortunately for Rockaway’s Muslim community, the suit was thrown out of court.  

Blizzard of misinformation

According to the Pew Research Center, the opposition to constructing churches and commercial spaces generally centers on concerns about traffic, noise, parking and property values. However, the tone of those opposed to mosque construction applications is tinged with fears about Islam, the phantom threat of Sharia law and terrorism. From 2004 to 2012, Pew found 53 cases where mosques and Islamic centers encountered community resistance. In 2013, the Pew Forum found that a majority of Americans agreed with opponents of a proposed Islamic cultural center near the former site of the World Trade Center.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate just a year before the 9/11 attacks. In the decade that followed, the Department of Justice documented a 14 percent increase of RLUIPA investigations involving Muslims.

This racist rhetoric did not come out of thin air, as the 2011 report Fear, Inc. by the Center for American Progress outlined. As the Brennan Center’s Patel explained, “Anti-Muslim sentiment has been at high levels for some time. This is manifested both in spurious objections to mosques [of the type we saw in Al Falah], the anti-Sharia movement, which tries to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, and tarnishes Muslims by increasing levels of discrimination and violent hate crimes. These issues also generally become prominent during elections because they identify an ‘other’ for people to focus their grievances. The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the conflict in Syria have only exacerbated these tendencies.”

Those protesting at these town meetings are the products of a blizzard of misinformation. They are at once ordinary citizens of increasingly diverse communities and the frontline warriors of a well-funded political network dedicated to intimidating and marginalizing Muslims in America. Their prevalence shows that organized crusades of racism and religious bigotry can occur anywhere, even in communities in a Democratic-heavy state just a few miles from one of the most international, multicultural cities in the world.

Even as the Constitution is described by Republican politicians and grassroots conservative activists in terms normally reserved for the Bible, laws like RLUIPA had to be passed to protect its most hallowed amendment from them. Those driving the campaigns against mosque construction in New Jersey and beyond seem determined to rewrite the First Amendment so it applies to some of the people, some of the time.

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