In a Small Virginia County, Islamophobia and Legal Tricks Denied Muslims a House of Worship

The past year and a half has seen a dangerous and sometimes violent upsurge of Islamophobia which has been conducted by nationally famous politicians and pundits. Donald Trump’s bigotry may be the most notable and explicit but he is far from the only politician to scapegoat and stigmatize Muslims. Both Democrats and Republicans have exploited terrorist attacks to call for Muslims to be put under surveillance or deported. After the attack in Nice, France, Newt Gingrich suggested that mosques were “the primary source of recruitment” and should be monitored.


Every person “of Muslim background” should be tested, said Gingrich, and “if they believe in Shariah, they should be deported.” Some Democrats have echoed such bigoted rhetoric, with former Massachusetts representative Barney Frank using the Orlando attack to call for “significant surveillance” of Muslims with radical beliefs.

Not surprisingly, this Islamophobic rhetoric has coincided with violent attacks on and discrimination against Muslims, as documented in a report published by Georgetown University in May. Mosques in particular have become especially vulnerable to attacks and not just because they signal a prominent presence of Muslims. There is also a long history of law enforcement agencies treating mosques as targets of surveillance and infiltration. One only has to recall the New York Police Department labeling entire mosques as terrorist organization to understand why mosques would be the primary targets for bigots.

According to a database maintained by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the number of incidents targeting mosques in 2015 was the highest ever recorded. 2016 is well on its way to be the “second worst year on record for bias incidents targeting mosques.”

While many of the incidents involving mosques are cases of vandalism and arson, attacks carried out by private individuals, there are growing worries that discrimination against construction or expansion of mosques is also happening in local and state governments. CAIR’s database documents at least five cases of incidents which involved “Islamophobic issues raised during zoning proceedings” in 2015. By mid-September, there were already six cases in 2016. In the past six years, more than a third of the Department of Justice’s investigations into potential violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act have involved Muslims.

The case of Culpeper County in Virginia—one of the places being investigated by the Justice Department—highlights some of the ways that Islamophobia manifests itself in small towns and counties throughout the country, often using the veneer of technical legalese to deny concerns about discrimination. As Leslie Scott reported for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project, legal tricks have been used across the country, including just minutes outside New York City, to deny Muslims the ability to build houses of worship.

In April, the Board of Supervisors in Culpeper County voted 4-3 to reject the Islamic Center of Culpeper’s (ICC) application for a pump-and-haul permit to service a planned mosque. Board members insist that the denial was based on technical grounds: the Islamic Center had not yet purchased the land, did not face an emergency, and as such was not encountering an undue hardship. It was a matter of policy and not discrimination.  

This did not assuage the concerns of Mohammad Nawabe, a businessman who owns the house where local Muslims currently pray. He told the Culpeper-Star Exponent that the decision “looks like discrimination.”

Nawabe’s suspicions are not unwarranted. Summaries of pump-and-haul applications from the past twenty years show that the last time the board denied a permit was in 1998. Companies and churches which did not own the land, similar to the position ICC finds itself in, were nonetheless granted permits.

Corey Saylor, the Director of CAIR’s Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia, finds the denial of the permit suspicious. He told me that “it does raise a very serious red flag when you have so many approvals and one denial.” Any reasonable and objective observer “is going to raise an eyebrow at that,” said Saylor.

What seems clear is that there was a vocal opposition to the Islamic Center’s bid to secure a permit. E-mails urging the Board of Supervisors to deny the permit and obtained through a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request reveal that much of this opposition was grounded in Islamophobia.

One community member wanted to know what the ICC “want[s] to do with the property” and why it is not “forthcoming” about its organization. He believed that given the “unrest in other countries” it is only reasonable to want to know “what an Islamic group wants with an abandoned house on property they don’t own.” Apparently, the answer “build a mosque” was not nefarious enough to be satisfying.

According to another community member, approval of the ICC’s application “would increase exposure of county residents to an international movement responsible for senseless murders of innocent people all over the world.” Yet another simply wrote that “this is not a group many want to welcome into our community because they understandably feel the safety of the community would be threatened based on what we know of the ideology of the Islamic religion…”

One person who seems to have given the issue some serious thought apprised the board that the mosque would naturally lead to the growth of the local Muslim community which in turn would require “a couple of under-cover detectives to regularly attend meetings and services to prevent things from happening.” The proximity of Culpeper County to Washington D.C. would “force us to begin developing preventative measures,” placing a significant financial burden on the county.

Many other e-mails were similar in content.

Fuad Abutaleb of the Islamic Center has “some concerns” about the Islamophobic atmosphere but maintains that hateful comments do not come from the majority. He says the ICC also has supporters, especially “some of our Christian brothers who support us and attend Friday prayers from time to time.”

More worrying is the how some public officials in Culpeper County seem intent on promoting Islamophobia in the community. In 2014, the county’s sheriff Scott Jenkins booked prominent Islamophobe John Guandolo to conduct an “advanced counter-terrorism” training titled “Jihadi Networks in America.” Guandolo, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, believes that CIA Director John Brennan is a secret Muslim and the Obama administration has “made a significant effort to protect known members of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood inside this government.” He also denies that American Muslims “have a First Amendment right to do anything.”

Saylor met with the sheriff in 2014 to discuss the issue and admits to having “a fairly favorable impression” of him. The sheriff’s office was offered “a very cheap training,” says Saylor, and “really didn’t do its homework.” Earlier this year, however, Guandolo was back in Culpeper County, speaking at another event hosted by the sheriff. This raises Saylor’s concerns. “This time the sheriff knows who he is,” he says. When a public official like the sheriff is “not promoting an environment of unity in the community” and makes a decision to “vilify a particular religious group,” it will “bring more Islamophobia out.”

This is what seems to have happened when the Islamic Center of Culpeper applied for its permit. While the official reasons given for the denial are technical matters of policy, the backdrop of Islamophobia facilitated by public officials like the sheriff has clearly played a role in the opposition to the ICC’s bid.

Members of the Islamic Center seem to be taking this in stride. In an e-mail sent to the county board following the vote, they expressed disappointment but assumed the decision was made out of “entirely honorable” motives.

“Our desire,” they wrote, “is to build a peaceful place of worship where people of all religions are welcome.”

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