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In Kennesaw, Ga., the city council recently rejected, then approved a bid to house a mosque at a shopping mall. The vote has ignited a fierce debate in the community over how residents feel about Muslims and their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. NewsHour Weekend's William Brangham reports.
Nasser Omer is an accountant, husband, and father of two grown kids. This Indian-American is also a devout Muslim — and as such, he tries to get to his nearest mosque as often as possible to pray.
For Muslim men, it is mandatory to pray five times a day in congregation. That is the reason we need to go to the mosque.
Omer lives in Kennesaw, Georgia, a rural community of about 30,000. It's just over 25 miles northwest of Atlanta…. a quiet town… one where confederate flags fly freely. There are at least 40 churches in Kennesaw but no mosque, so Omer — one of perhaps a hundred Muslims in town — has to drive to the neighboring town of Marietta where there are a couple mosques.
How far is the nearest mosque for you to go to now?
It's about ten miles from here. And it takes about 30 minutes from my home to the mosque, one way. After the prayers, again, 30 minutes to come back.
A few months ago, Omer and a few other Muslim families decided they'd like to open their own small mosque in their own town. They found this strip mall — it had multiple vacancies, the price was right — and so they filed the paperwork to open a small storefront mosque right here. This Pentecostal Church had done something very similar a few months before. To help them with the process, they enlisted a local Muslim community leader — Amjad Taufique — he'd helped set-up another mosque in Marietta.
So, why does Kennesaw need a mosque?
Well, I mean, Muslims try to make it five times a day to the mosque and in this day and age, it's a little difficult to be there five times a day. But usually, if you are close enough — five, ten minutes' drive — you can go there early in the morning prayers, in the evening prayers at least. And you build up the community.
At first, the application process was routine. The zoning board ok'd the idea, but as word got out about the proposed mosque, some opponents showed up in force at the next planning commission meeting. Cris Eaton Welsh — who thinks the mosque should be approved — sits on the Kennesaw City Council.
From my understanding, there were over 200 people that showed up to the meeting, and there–
And that's unusual?
Very unusual, you might have three people, five people.
Is that right? Normally three people show up? You had 200 this time?
200 people show up this time, and it was: "You can't let this in our community, they're gonna practice Sharia Law," and lots of fear, and I believe, misunderstanding in the community.
It didn't help that the day before the city council was to hold their next meeting to discuss the mosque, the Islamic militant group ISIS released another video showing the beheading of another American, this time aid-worker, and former US Army Ranger, Peter Kassig. Welsh says this ongoing violence by some Muslims in the Middle East made any moves by a Muslim group in Georgia seem suspicious to some people in her community.
And they're seeing it every single night on the news. And– and I think that instills–
Seeing ISIS and Al-Qaeda, beheadings–
ISIS and Al-Qaeda, uh-huh (AFFIRM)–
And so they thought that this was gonna be an outpost for ISIS?
Over the last couple of days, we've been asking people around town what they think of the proposed mosque, and the reactions have been split about 50/50. Half the people for, half against. The interesting thing though is the people who are against the mosque were very reluctant to talk with us about it on-camera. People who support the mosque, however, they were very eager to talk.
You know, they have every right to worship where they want. It really doesn't bother me. I mean, I hope it goes through for them and, you know, I hope it's successful.
I don't have a problem with the mosque coming to town. I think that this country's built on religious freedom. And I think that we should respect that.
I do have prejudice, prejudices like everybody else that's been formed with all the 9/11 and everything that's been going on. I'm a live-and-let live type of person. And as long as people are good citizens — like I try to be– it's okay with me.
I don't want Sharia law in Georgia.
We were able to track down one critic who'd speak publicly. Chad Legere works at a fire-proofing company and lives in a neighboring Georgia town. He says from what he's seen of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, he can't trust the intentions of any Muslims.
Do you know the people who are behind this mosque? I mean, they say, "We've been living in this community for decades, we've raised our families, gone to schools, and we've never shown a trace of violence." Does that example not convince you they might have different intentions than you think?
Like I said, prove it. Go on record condemning I.S.I.S. I haven't seen it. And definitely not on a widespread level. Why are Christians running around scared? Why did they– why did they need to put a mosque inside a shopping center? What's the next step? Wal-Mart's? We gonna have a mosque at every Wal-Mart?
What they've seen in the news media is a small you know, group of people acting upon themselves, calling themselves Muslims and doing the things that are heinous crimes and we as Muslims in America, you know, definitely do not condone those acts at all. We condemn those acts. We are against those as much as anybody else.
You mentioned that you condemn these acts, and this is one of the things we heard from people is that they feel that the American Muslim community doesn't do enough to condemn the acts of ISIS and Al Qaeda. What is your response to that?
I'm really, you know, trying to do this for past so many years. It's just don't know how else can we go out and reach out to the community and tell them that we've done that, and continue to do that. There are websites which gives links after links after links where Muslims, not only in the United States of America, but all around the world, have condemned these acts. And we continue to do that, because this is really not Islam.
I'm a practicing Catholic. You know, I don't understand their religion, but I know that our Founding Fathers meant it when they penned the Constitution, and that means that whether I agree with it or not, they've got the right to be there.
But City Council member Welsh says the anti-Muslim vitriol only got worse when the City Council had to finally vote to approve or deny the proposed mosque. Welsh, who by day is a chiropractor, wife and mom of two young girls — says the day of that vote was a scary one.
The Monday of the vote, around 4:00 in the afternoon, I was here in my office and a police officer came over in the middle of my patient hours and said that she needed to speak to me. And I was like, "I'm really busy." And she said, "No, I have to talk to you now."
And my Facebook information, my children's pictures, my office phone number, my home address, my office Facebook page had all been released onto a "hate site." And sending me some very graphic torture pictures of ISIS and saying, "This is the kind of thing that you're trying to bring to our community, what kind of person are you?" And at that point, I got a little rattled.
The police escorted Welsh over to city hall for the vote. Protesters had already been gathering — many from out of town — and they were happy to speak out.
To me it is a threat to my freedom, my children, and everything I own. And that includes my life and the life of my children.
They're training their kids how to do terrible things to Americans and we're trying to stop it.
That night, the City Council voted down the proposed mosque, 4-1. Welsh was the only one who voted in favor. The City Council didn't give any reason why they rejected the mosque proposal, and none of the Council apart from Welsh would talk with us.
The Mayor of Kennesaw has said that the debate had nothing to do with religion. Instead, he said it was based on concerns about proper zoning, parking and traffic congestion.
But Atlanta attorney Doug Dillard says those can't be the sole reasons.
So parking, traffic, hours of operation, all that kind of thing can be dealt with, but they cannot be, in and of themselves, a reason to deny the application.
Dillard is building a lawsuit against Kennesaw on behalf of the mosque group. He represented two other mosques in two other Georgia towns in recent years who'd been denied permits to build or expand, and both times, he helped the mosques move forward.
Dillard says Kennesaw — just like those other towns — is violating both Constitutional and Federal protections against religious discrimination. Dillard says just look at that Pentecostal church that was allowed in that other strip mall. He says Kennesaw can't greenlight a Christian church and then turn around and deny the Muslim mosque.
I think the reason for the opposition is that this is a group of Muslims. They don't want 'em to worship in Kennesaw, period. They don't care where you put 'em.
But do you have any evidence that that's the case?
Only through their actions having approved Christian, and opposing the Muslims, and if you look at the opposition — "Terrorists go home" — it's pretty evident that the opposition is uninformed and is putting forth an argument that's not lawful.
On top of Dillard's proposed lawsuit, the U.S. Justice Department told the NewsHour it was also looking into the situation in Kennesaw.
Given the immense blow-back, and that the mosque was voted down, do you wish you had not stepped out and publicly declared yourself in favor?
I don't like the publicity, I don't like the spotlight, I don't like any of that. I still think it was the right thing to do, for me. And I would still do it again.
Facing a possible lawsuit, and a possible Federal investigation, the Kennesaw City Council last week made a dramatic turnaround. The four members of the council who'd voted "No" asked that their votes be withdrawn, and changed to "Yes" votes. That made for a unanimous approval of the mosque's permit.
If nothing changes, supporters of the mosque say they'll drop their lawsuit and hopefully soon begin work preparing the site.
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