The divide within

As Muslims in the U.S. and Georgia face hostility to new religious institutions, community leaders say such institutions are more important than ever. But they're split on how to assuage the fears of non-Muslims while defending their rights.

VIDEO: Local Muslims discuss negative perceptions of Islam

“When a government violates the Constitution, then I have to put my foot down.”

-- Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of CAIR Georgia

A debate in Newton County

By Meris Lutz
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Masjid Al-Mu’minun, a mosque on Hank Aaron Drive in south Atlanta, is one of the few that play the call to prayer over external speakers, letting the sound drift through the neighborhood. Ahmed Najee-ullah, a leader in the congregation, joked that local residents set their watches by it.

“We are in those parts of the African American community where a lot of people wouldn’t venture and the communities that we’re in appreciate us being there,” he said. “They have this perception that we represent the best in them.”

Najee-ullah is one of many black Americans who converted to Islam during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the sixties and seventies. He said mosques are welcomed as beacons of stability in many black neighborhoods.

Things have changed in the decades since Masjid Al-Mu’minun opened in the early eighties. As the Muslim population of the United States grows, communities are seeking to establish Islamic institutions such as mosques, schools and cemeteries in otherwise homogenous suburban and rural areas.

These efforts can be met with hostility, with opponents citing everything from insufficient parking to suspicions of refugee-terrorist plots to take over America, starting with Main Street.

In Newton County, hundreds turned out in opposition to a proposed mosque during a heated town hall meeting in August.

“[Muslims] carry hate and it is known in their faith that all infidels will die if you don’t believe like they believe,” one woman said to applause. “I don’t want to see our town destroyed.”

Her sentiments were echoed by dozens of speakers.

Versions of this have played out across the United States and Georgia in recent years, including in Lilburn and Kennesaw. A series of high profile controversies over Muslim worship centers appears to coincide with a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric and activity.

A recent study by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at the University of California, San Bernardino, found hate crimes against Muslims increased 78 percent in 2015. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has warned that 2016 is on track to surpass that figure. Over the summer, a Muslim woman was set on fire on a New York City street and a Florida mosque was torched. In October, three Kansas men were arrested and charged over a bomb plot targeting Somali Muslims.

While the government does not collect information about religious affiliation on the census, the Pew Research Center estimated there were 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States in 2015. A large portion—about 1.7 million, according to Pew—immigrated between 1992 and 2012. The Muslim population is expected to reach 8.1 million by 2050, or 2.1 percent of the total population.

The metro Atlanta area, like many cities, is home to a large, diverse Muslim community, although there are no numbers available.

Conversations with Muslim residents and community leaders who call Georgia home reveal a split in opinion on how to respond to anti-Muslim animosity.

Based on these interviews, American-born children of immigrants and African American Muslims, whose own history of activism is often overlooked in the broader conversation about Islam in America, tend toward a less apologetic approach. Older, immigrant Muslims may tread more cautiously, eschewing lawsuits and official complaints in favor of working behind the scenes to assuage the fears of non-Muslims, even when faced with threats of violence.

When opponents of the proposed Newton County mosque called it a terrorist training ground, Imam Mohammad Islam counseled his congregation, which bought the property to use primarily as a cemetery, to be patient.

Several weeks later, a local militia shot a menacing video at the site in which a man calling himself General Blood Agent disparaged Muslims as followers of the Antichrist. The imam did not reach out to law enforcement, although the county deemed the video threatening enough to cancel a scheduled meeting to address the mosque.

“We’re not going to go and take shelter in the law,” said Imam Islam, who emigrated from Bangladesh over 20 years ago and now ministers to a congregation in Doraville. “I believe if we are patient, we are tolerant, we depend on God almighty.”

Meanwhile, against the imam’s wishes, the Georgia branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations reached out to the Department of Justice and led the charge to publicly shame the county for its handling of the case.

As the plan for a mosque became common knowledge, sparking outrage locally, the county commission issued a temporary moratorium on all new places of worship, an act CAIR branded as discriminatory.

County Commissioner John Douglas told a local newspaper he feared the mosque would make Newton a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East.

The commission then held two back-to-back public meetings to discuss the mosque even though the property owner had no business before the county.

“When a government violates the Constitution, then I have to put my foot down,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, a lawyer and executive director of CAIR Georgia. “Some people, you cannot negotiate with. Some people will not respond to kind acts and warm smiles.”

VIDEO: Imam Mohammed Islam of At Taqwa Mosque in Doraville discusses the images of Islam

“We know that there’s a Constitution, what is our right, we know it, so don’t think we are not aware or we don’t know.”

-- Imam Mohammad Islam, Masjid At-Taqwa Mosque

Time and scars

Mitchell, who is black, said he embraced Islam as a teenager, having been raised by a Unitarian Christian mother and a father who converted to Islam as a college student.

“That unique background that African Americans have experienced in this country, winning a fight for civil rights, I think informs how we deal today with violations of our civil rights,” Mitchell said.

Muslim immigrants, he added, may come from countries where criticizing the government could land a person in jail or worse.

“If you come from a culture that is not accustomed to speaking up against authority, then you might have a different way of dealing with discrimination here in America,” Mitchell said.

But Imam Islam, who objected to CAIR’s methods, also rejected this characterization.

“We know that there’s a Constitution, what is our right, we know it, so don’t think we are not aware or we don’t know,” he said. “We will give time and time is the best thing to heal any scar.”

The controversy over the Newton County mosque and cemetery appears to have resolved itself after the temporary moratorium on new places of worship expired following a month-long outreach campaign by the congregation, and threats of legal action by CAIR.

Meanwhile, Muslim community leaders say mosques are vital bulwarks against Islamophobia and radicalization.

Sheikh Muhammad Al Ninowy, the imam and founding director of the Madina Institute in Duluth, said blocking construction of mosques may lead more young people to seek information about Islam online, where they are vulnerable to radical ideologues.

“The problem is when young people don’t go actually to mosque, when mosques are not allowed to exist,” he said. “Whoever gets a hold of him first on Google gets a hold of their mind and heart.”

Last year, the Madina Institute launched what Ninowy believes to be the first Islamic seminary in the country accredited by a department of education.

“We found it to be absolutely urgent to start training our own homegrown American Muslims to be religious leaders of this community,” Ninowy said. “Not only [do] they speak the language and they understand it, but they understand the culture, they understand what it is to be an American and what it is to be an American Muslim and what are the priorities of American Muslims and how do we deal with Islamophobia, let’s say, how do we deal with violent extremism as well.”

VIDEO: CAIR Georgia's Edward Ahmed Mitchell discusses anti-Muslim backlash since 2010.

“I don’t think we owe people an explanation.”

-- Marwa Assar, student at the Madina Institute

‘Not a time to seclude’

Marwa Assar, who was born in Egypt and raised in New Jersey, is among the roughly 30 students enrolled at the Madina Institute this year.

Assar, 29, came of age after September 11. For her, Islam is a way of life rooted in education of self and others, and representing the faith publicly comes with the territory. This is especially true for women like herself who wear the hijab, or headscarf.

But engaging in dialogue with non-Muslims about her religion doesn’t mean she is willing to indulge bigotry or compromise her rights as an American, she added.

“This is not a time to seclude,” Assar said. “I don’t think we owe people an explanation … I’m doing it because my faith empowers connection and empowers compassion and empowers me to see you beyond what you’re presenting to me.”

VIDEO: Sajida Lafraie and Marwa Assar discuss practicing Islam within American culture.