Debates over proposed mosques center on religious versus residential rights

Feb 8 2011 - 10:55am

CHICAGO -- On one side, the issue is about the right to have a sacred space where believers can pray. On the other, it's about preventing religious institutions from crowding residential neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, the DuPage County Board is expected to announce its decision on whether a proposed new mosque can be built near the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook.

Swirling around the debate has been a belief by some that area residents are more worried about having Muslim people in their neighborhood than about traffic and property values.

"Mainstream America is alarmed, and rightfully so, about the radical groups that exist," said Dr. Naveed Mallick, a member of the group that wants to build the mosque. "We're all in this together. We don't want our neighbors to be alarmed or scared about us coming into the community."

Mallick's family belongs to the Muslim Educational Cultural Center of America, or MECCA, which has been meeting in a cramped commercial space near a Kmart as it waits for a decision from the county.

It has been a challenging time for that group as well as two others that have proposed mosques in DuPage County. They worry they are experiencing a Chicago version of the fierce controversy that surrounded a planned Muslim prayer center two blocks from ground zero in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Neighbors who live near the proposed MECCA center and other planned mosques insist their concerns are related to zoning issues such as traffic, land value and flooding, not religion.

"It has nothing to do" with anti-Islamic sentiments, said Craig Rohner, who lives near the planned mosque. "Unfortunately, you've got people who keep stoking that fire."

But religion has entered the discussion, courtesy of DuPage County Zoning Board of Appeals member Barry Ketter. Last month, Ketter said the MECCA plan increases, in his opinion, "a saturation of religious institutions into this specific area and leaves minimal open space."

While the Muslim prayer center plans percolate, the county also is holding hearings on a proposal to block places of assembly of any kind, including religious institutions, in unincorporated residential areas.

And in late January a group planning to build a mosque near Lombard made a pitch to the county zoning board.

What's occurring in and around DuPage County has happened elsewhere in the Chicago area and, if recent Muslim population projections are any indication, it's reasonable to expect more proposals for Islamic prayer centers, experts say. The Chicago area has about 120 mosques, according to The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Estimates place the number of Muslims at nearly half a million.

Nationally, a report from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life projects that the number of Muslims in the U.S. will more than double in the next two decades, "from nearly 2.6 million in 2010 to about 6.2 million in 2030."

That would give the U.S. the 43rd largest Muslim population in the world, up from 55th place in 2010, according to the Pew report.

As more Muslims join the American mainstream and look for places to practice their faith, there have been tensions

The difficulties in DuPage started in January 2010 when the County Board rejected plans for an Islamic education and prayer center, known as Irshad Learning Center, on nearly 3 acres near Naperville. In April, a Muslim rights group filed a lawsuit contending the decision represented "unequal treatment and discrimination."

On Jan. 13 of this year, the county's Zoning Board of Appeals recommended rejecting MECCA's mosque, school and recreation center. Within a week, supporters followed with a news conference, calling the rejection "un-American."

Last week, the county's Planning and Development Committee recommended approval of the proposed mosque and sent the issue to the County Board.

At the same time, the debate continues over a home in unincorporated DuPage County near West Chicago, where the Islamic Center of the Western Suburbs is seeking a zoning change to allow the organization to use the home as a prayer center.

On Monday night, the zoning board continued the matter until March.

Local religious leaders differ on whether anti-Islamic perspectives loom behind the seemingly utilitarian discussions on traffic, property values and land use.

"I don't see it as much of an anti-Muslim sentiment," said Shaykh Abdool Rahman, resident scholar at the Islamic Foundation, which has been in Villa Park since the mid-1970s and is not directly involved in the current cases in DuPage. "For now, I would say it's an anti-religious thing that's going on."

Pastor Tim Casey sees it as anti-Muslim. Casey, who runs Good Shepherd United Methodist Church down the road from the planned prayer center in West Chicago, provides space in his church for Muslims who had been going to Friday prayers at the West Chicago home.

"Just because they are Islamic, people completely reject them," he said. "I find that attitude un-American as well as un-Christian."

Good Shepherd has been hosting Friday prayers since August 2009 Casey said, and the Muslim guests "have been fantastic. I'm glad that we've been able to do this."

For some, however, the lines aren't that clear. Peter Poteres, who has lived behind the proposed Irshad mosque near Naperville for 18 years, doesn't want it in his neighborhood, saying there is too much traffic.

"We bought into a residential area," he said. "We did not buy into a commercial area."

He's learned it's not that simple.

Poteres has been approached by residents in public places, he said. Some have accused him of being a bigot, while others call him a proud American, he said.


Meanwhile, the prayer sessions have continued for MECCA in its modest office location. The group attracts as many as 200 worshipers for its Friday worship, officials say.

On a recent Friday, the imam spoke mostly in English about justice in Egypt, before he began the prayers. Male and female guests were separated by a temporary screen.

Asked what he thought of the controversy surrounding suburban mosques, Dr. Shakir Moiduddin, who lives less than a half mile away from the proposed MECCA site, blamed it on lack of communication and "fear of the unknown."

"It's partly our fault," Moiduddin said. "We don't do enough to reach out to people."


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