Resonzed Into Action: How Disputes Over New Mosques in Chicago are Generating a New Wave of Muslim Political Actors

In 1998, 13 years after arriving in the U.S., Mahmood Ghassemi settled around Naperville, Illinois. The suburb offered him a reasonable commute to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he still works as an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine. Among his neighbors were a growing number of Muslims, although they were predominately Sunni, and Ghassemi is a native of Iran. So, in 2000, he helped form the Irshad Learning Center, a small congregation of fellow Shiites.

For eight years, they bounded from space to space, meeting to pray and worship wherever they could – a local community college, an office building, a Catholic church. Eventually, they opted for a place of their own and purchased a former daycare, then sitting dormant, on July 5, 2008. To file the necessary paperwork to convert it into a mosque, a neighbor recommended shelling out $16,000 for a zoning lawyer. Ghassemi balked at first, hesitant to spend that much. But he relented, deciding a consultant was needed to navigate the unfamiliar terrain.

Three years later, Ghassemi and his fellow congregants have spent more than $100,000 on legal fees and property taxes for the building they own but have yet to move into. The appeal to rezone the property has moved jaggedly through layers of county red tape and has been voted down and revised a dizzying number of times. It is now the subject of a forceful discrimination lawsuit, brought by the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) against 18 DuPage County officials.

Along each arduous step, Ghassemi believed that his group filed the correct paperwork, gave accurate information and secured the appropriate legal rights. “We felt that the rule of law was going to prevail,” he recently recalled. “We were naive.”

Ghassemi’s experience is not unique. As Irshad labored through its approval process, an additional 34 mosques and Islamic centers across the country were embroiled in similar controversies, according to a 2010 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The most famous dispute arrived the summer of that year, when an August news lull and sharp, opportunistic political winds turned the Park51 center in lower Manhattan into the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Opponents there claimed that neither mosques nor the Muslim faith were the issue, but rather it was the emotional significance of the location. Any place but there, went the opposing line.

But then observers panned the country and discovered this wasn’t the case. Reports emerged of identical scenes – in California cities, Tennessee towns and Chicago suburbs – where plans to build new mosques fueled fierce resistance.

Away from the presidential spotlight, 2012 will feature a myriad of lesser-noticed local elections. Winners in these local contests are all dealing with the severity of the poor economy, with budget cuts and depleted revenues. As the population of U.S. Muslims continues to expand, some anti-Muslim forces are coupling with this new public austerity to stop the Irshads everywhere. Yet the loudest mosque opponents – those who rail against the influence of Islam in politics – may have unwittingly thrown a new generation of Muslims squarely into the political arena.

The Muslim population in the Chicagoland is booming. In a comprehensive study of the region, Paul Numrich, a professor at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, says the number of mosques jumped nearly twentyfold in 50 years, clocking in at 91 last year. His estimate is probably conservative – it leaves out unmarked, informal spaces that some of the roughly 400,000 Muslims who pepper the area surely fill.

Decades ago, new mosques in the cityproper faced considerable hostility. Yet the resistance has waned as compact, diverse neighbors rub shoulders with less tension. It’s in the suburbs – host to about half of the past decade’s new mosques, by Numrich’s figures – where Muslims are now meeting pushback. They are drawn there for the same reasons as generations of Americans: better schools, less crime and more space.

But more space means that places to congregate are also sprawled out widely.

In Orland Park, a village to the southwest of the city, Muslim residents used to make the 30 to 40 minute drive to the mosque in Bridgeview, which quickly filled to the brim. In 2004, members of the community, led by Malik Ali, a media executive, elected to open a local mosque. One member donated a patch of property, and they filed to rezone the site. Things swiftly grew heated.

Before approving the site, the village held three hearings, including one in mid- June that lasted more than three hours and drew a volatile crowd of more than 400. “You are bringing terrorism to our back doors where our children play,” one attendee reprimanded Ali at the meeting, according to NPR. Amid the controversy, one local Baptist minister voiced such vitriolic opposition that the county executive pulled his church as a polling site for upcoming elections. The Department of Justice monitored the hearings for any breach of federal law.

Yet since then, the dissent over Chicagoland mosques has shifted. The opposition is less overtly about religion and more frequently about the potential strain on municipal resources. Muslims residents across the region, many of them educated and affluent, are confronting tactics suburbs have long used to control their borders and growth, both out and up: land-use policies.

When the Irshad hearings began, local members of the group Act! for America were critical in rallying opposition. They spread information on a loan Irshad received from the Alavi Foundation, a New York nonprofit that fell under FBI investigation for its ties to an Iranian bank. (Ghassemi says they accepted the loan well before the investigation.) But Act! for America also gained considerable leverage with county officials by exaggerating the size and span of the proposed mosque, Ghassemi says.

When Irshad filed its paperwork, he said, they asked for 39 parking spaces to accommodate the roughly 100 congregants, and noted that two times a year, during Ramadan, services would go well into the night. At the hearing, opponents warned of hundreds of new parking spots and regular late-night sessions. A threat of cramped traffic and disruption speaks volumes in bedroom suburbs.

A swelling Sunni community in Willowbrook, 20 miles southwest of Chicago, faced similar hiccups in its attempt to construct the Muslim Educational and Cultural Center of America (MECCA), a 47,000-square-foot recreation and prayer center. M. Abdulgany Hamadeh, the center’s president, explained that the opposition largely revolved around the stream of new congregants. “I don’t think this is a religious issue at this point,” he told me. “This is a traffic and land-use issue.”

Unlike Irshad, MECCA eventually won zoning approval – but not without caveats. Neighbors voiced concern about increased traffic, so the mosque backers dropped the recreational facility plans. And the zoning board voted down blueprints for a minaret atop the mosque. MECCA is appealing the decision.

A similar issue arose in the 2004 Orland Park hearings, where residents claimed that the height of the mosque’s dome, not its religious significance, would dampen real estate values. Today, with a stagnant economy, this argument can pack a punch with public officials. So, too, can a line about tax-exempt places of worship. After CAIR-Chicago filed its lawsuit on Irshad, DuPage County briefly considered a measure to outlaw all religious institutions in unincorporated areas. It failed to pass.

Amina Sharif, the CAIR-Chicago communication coordinator, believes this line of objection can mask religious motivation. “That’s kind of an excuse that is safe to make,” she said. “You can’t be a bigot if you’re just concerned about the economy of your suburb or your county.”

MECCA’s push to hoist a minaret is not unusual for new Islamic construction around Chicago, argues Numrich, the theology professor. While older mosques are often inconspicuous – identified only by small letterings and a turn toward Mecca – newer ones are more nakedly Muslim. “The great majority are saying, ‘We want people to know this is a mosque,’ ” he told me.

And with this architectural shift has come a revision in the way Muslim communities approach civic engagement. Younger, second-generation Muslims are more willing to organize politically, to shed the reluctance of older Muslims, Sharif argued. She cited a new group, Project Mobilize, which was launched to put Chicagoland Muslims into elected offices. To meet their goal, the group is openly embracing the “all politics is local” mantra. Last spring, they helped run a handful of young candidates for unglamorous positions in municipal governance: a library trustee, a parks commissioner and a school board member. They are parents, concerned about cuts in their schools and communities; they are Muslims, concerned that names and faces like theirs are not on ballots.

For the older mosque leaders, the zoning battles have proved a rapid immersion in the intricacies of local government. Hamadeh rattled off the bureaucratic channels that his minaret needed to move through to become a reality. Before he had to appear in front of the county board, the trained pulmonologist had never heard of it. “I know it very well now,” he said, chuckling.

Ghassemi spoke in a calm, professorial tone while he walked me through Irshad’s recent history, something he’s likely done dozens of times before. But then, toward the end, he grew more animated. His voice quickened and rose as he spoke of the special interest groups that swept in, trumped basic law and so easily swayed local officials. It was a “humbling experience” for his community – a lesson in the base motivation of politicians: “They just want to be reelected.” Summing up his political tutorial, he used a uniquely American phrase. “From now on,” he said, “this is a different ballgame.”

Mark Bergen writes the Econometro blog for Forbes, and he has covered politics and policy for GOOD, Tablet Magazine, Religion Dispatches and the Chicago Reader. He lives in Chicago.

“We felt that the rule of law was going to prevail,” Ghassemi recently recalled. “We were naive.”

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