by David Lepeska for The New York Times
March 17, 2011
A long battle over a proposed mosque in DuPage County is approaching a turning point, and although anti-Muslim sentiment and resistance to mosques in the Chicago area are hardly going away, Muslims appear to be winning this time.
The Muslim Educational and Cultural Center of America, or Mecca, wants to construct a 47,000-square-foot building in Willowbrook, one that includes a school, a recreational center and a 600-person prayer hall. The plan has been scaled back since a county committee rejected an earlier proposal in January, and the smaller building is considered likely to be approved by the DuPage County Board, which has the final say.
The Mecca proposal is one of four mosque-related plans to come before the DuPage Board in recent years as the Chicago-area Muslim community has grown significantly. The rhetoric that has followed has highlighted tensions about development of the rural and suburban county and has exposed anti-Muslim sentiment.
More than 400,000 Muslims live in the Chicago area, the majority of them in the suburbs. Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, an advocacy group, said many Muslims had to drive 40 minutes or more to attend Friday prayers at one of 120 mosques in the area. “There is a real need to accommodate this growing community,” he said.
In DuPage County, the battle over the proposals underscores a broader demographic shift. The DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform, a collaboration between government and community groups, said the number of foreign-born residents in the county had increased to 171,000 in 2009, from 71,000 in 1990. Foreign-born residents now make up more than 17 percent of the population of nearly a million in an area long dominated by Caucasian, mostly rural residents.
Accommodation has been hard to come by. In the past year, the DuPage Zoning Board of Appeals has taken advisory votes against the Mecca proposal and another from the Islamic Center of Western Suburbs. The DuPage County Board has rejected a mosque plan from the Irshad Learning Center.
The tensions in DuPage reflect wide-ranging antagonism toward Muslim-Americans. Last year, local residents battled mosque proposals in Tennessee, Wisconsin, California and other states. There was a contentious nationwide debate over a proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan.
Rhetoric intensified last week at a congressional hearing, led by Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, into the radicalization of some American Muslims. Mr. King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has put forward unsubstantiated claims that more than 80 percent of American mosques are run by radical clerics.
“Negative views of Muslims have been increasing in the last 10 years, and the King hearings will likely add to that,” said Mr. Sahloul. “But putting a lot of limitations on where mosques can be built is against our values as Americans.”
In the Chicago area, residents in south suburban Bridgeview voiced opposition over the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation’s expansion of its mosque, partly because of concerns about the presence of radicals within the mosque leadership. Last year, the City of Chicago rejected a plan to build a mosque on the site of a vacant hot dog restaurant in Rogers Park.
The DuPage mosque proposals can be seen as litmus tests — with uncertain results so far. Although the Irshad Learning Center was rejected last year, Mecca appears to be headed for approval of its plan to build on a five-acre wooded plot near 91st Street and Highway 83 in unincorporated Willowbrook. Mecca leaders have cut the size of their plan several times, added underground containment tanks to address flooding concerns and expanded parking space.
“It’s clear that Mecca has gone above and beyond what’s been requested by the board and by their neighbors,” said Amy Lawless Ayala, lead organizer of DuPage United, an umbrella group of local churches, mosques and community associations that backs the proposal.
Mark Daniel, the lawyer for Mecca, said he was optimistic the board would approve the proposal. “At this point there is no legal basis for denial,” he said.
Some Muslims see a proposed DuPage ban on new places of assembly in unincorporated residential areas as a further anti-Muslim act. But one board member, Grant Eckhoff, described it as an attempt to preserve the county’s rural character.
People who live near the Mecca site say they would oppose the plan even if an Ikea store were being proposed. “No one on this block has expressed any worries about religion that I know of,” said William Gerow, 64. “This is a rural neighborhood and that’s an urban development. We have a clash of lifestyles here.”
Constance Gavras, who heads the Kane County chapter of Act! for America, a group known for its anti-Muslim protests, has rallied opposition to DuPage mosque proposals for two years. “A lot of these mosques are directly connected to terrorist organizations,”she said.
When Irshad’s proposal for a three-acre mosque site near Naperville was before the county board last year, Ms. Gavras distributed I.R.S. documents showing that the Alavi Foundation, a New York nonprofit and the subject of an F.B.I. investigation into its ties to the Iranian government-run Bank Melli, contributed $450,000 to Irshad in 2007.
Mahmood Ghassemi, Irshad’s chairman, confirmed the Alavi donation and said Irshad was still repaying an additional $300,000 loan. “We applied for the money and received the money at a time when Alavi was not under investigation,” Mr. Ghassemi said. They were perfectly legal.”
The county board rejected Irshad’s proposal last year even after the group amended it to address community concerns about traffic, hours of operation and parking.
Anti-Muslim activists are “vocal and powerful, and we feel they were the driving force for the county to reject our application,” said Mr. Ghassemi. “We fulfilled all the requirements, so I don’t see any other reason besides being Muslim.”
Still, Mr. Ghassemi said, he has seen very little religious bias during his 13 years living in DuPage.
The Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim support group, filed a federal lawsuit against the DuPage Board over the Irshad rejection, alleging discrimination and violation of constitutional rights. According to the filing, a board member, John Hakim, asked at one hearing if “animal sacrifices” would be part of the services. The board has moved to dismiss the case. Mr. Hakim did not return a call for comment.
“We think there is a bias against the Muslim institutions,” said Kevin Vodak, the lawyer for CAIR-Chicago. He noted that the board rejected the Irshad proposal without explanation, which is highly unusual, and that last fall the county took up an amendment to prohibit any new religious institutions in residential areas. “Most of the new proposals are from Muslims,” Mr. Vodak said.