When Muslim Americans in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, sought permission to build a mosque on an empty plot of land in April 2012, they were met with a series of objections from local officials. They didn’t plan for enough parking. Their headlights would disrupt the neighborhood. Traffic around the mosque would be too dangerous.
They also met with an outburst of anti-Muslim bigotry. One mosque objector told a reporter, “I don’t want a mosque anywhere in my town quite frankly.” The mailbox of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, the group pursuing the mosque, was vandalized twice; on one of those occasions, the assailants plastered a sticker with the letters ISIS, an acronym for the Islamic State, on the box.
Four years later, after no fewer than 39 public hearings, officials with the town planning board denied the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge a permit to build their house of worship. For now, the central Jersey Islamic community remains without a home, forced to rent space for Friday prayers from a community center in town.
Municipal officials denied any animus towards Muslims, saying they were concerned only about safety and about whether approving the mosque would follow land-use and zoning laws. But the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, having closely monitored developments around the mosque since it was proposed, did not agree. About a year after the denial, the division filed a lawsuit against Bernards Township (which governs Basking Ridge), alleging that local officials had used land-use laws to discriminate against the town’s Muslims. In turning down the mosque, federal attorneys charged, the municipality violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a powerful law that prohibits discrimination against religious institutions in zoning decisions.
“This is a small and vulnerable community whose own local government has led the assault on their most fundamental constitutional rights,” says Adeel Mangi, the Islamic Society’s lawyer in a separate, ongoing case against Bernards Township. “We welcome the participation of the Department of Justice in this battle to defend equal protection under the law.”
The DOJ’s New Jersey lawsuit is just one of many battles under way around the country over proposed or already standing mosques, which have become a cultural flashpoint in post-9/11 America. For Muslim communities, mosques are safe spaces to gather with family and friends in collective prayer, communal meals, charity work and cultural education. But in recent years, vandals and anti-Muslim activists have targeted mosques and the people who want to build them, turning them into battlegrounds over the very meaning of who is an American, and who gets to pray in America. And the Justice Department has taken notice of the discriminatory tone of many objections to mosques. The Basking Ridge lawsuit was just one of ten filed by the Obama administration on behalf of Muslim communities blocked by municipalities when they sought to build mosques. In some cases, the Justice Department has settled when local officials pledged to uphold RLUIPA. In others, the threat of legal action forced local officials to review a previously rejected mosque application.
But now, Obama and outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch are handing over the reins of power to a Donald Trump administration deeply hostile to Islam, and to a president who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration and intensified surveillance of mosques. That’s triggered broad concern among Muslim communities, advocates and civil rights lawyers about how mosque building and even Muslim worship will fare in the Trump era. It’s a question that cuts deep for Muslims who fear their privacy and freedom to worship without federal scrutiny will be taken away, and that will shed light on the future of civil liberties under President Trump.
“There's a real concern that the federal statute [protecting religious institutions] might go under enforced, or selectively enforced only in favor of certain faiths,” says Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
These fears have been exacerbated by Trump’s nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, to be his attorney general. Sessions has not commented specifically on mosque building in the U.S., and stated during his confirmation hearing that he would protect religious freedom. But when Trump in 2015 called for a ban on Muslim immigration, Sessions defended him, pointing to a “toxic ideology” within Islam.
Sessions “has not shown himself to be sensitive to the plight of minority communities in this country, which could have a direct effect on the Justice Department’s enforcement of the civil rights statutes,” says the ACLU’s Mach.
Approved by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000, RLUIPA bars zoning restrictions that place a “substantial burden” on religious exercise, mandates that religious institutions be treated by local officials the same as secular institutions, and prohibits discrimination against zoning applicants because of their religious identities.
In the first ten years following its enactment, federal enforcement of the Religious Land Use law centered largely on local squabbles over Christian congregations. The Justice Department launched 31 investigations into allegations of discrimination against Christian communities, six into allegations concerning Jews and seven into allegations concerning Muslims, according to a DOJ report released last year. Complaints centered on predictable neighborhood issues like parking, noise and traffic.
But since 2010, the DOJ started 20 investigations related to Christians, five related to Jews and 17 into discrimination against Muslims. The latter increased markedly over previous years, a spike that’s all the more striking given that Muslims make up one percent of the U.S. population. The DOJ report also notes that, since 2010, 84 percent of non-Muslim investigations were resolved without a lawsuit, while only 20 percent of mosque and Islamic school cases were solved without a legal complaint.
That the uptick started in 2010 should come as no surprise. That was the year when a coterie of anti-Muslim activists descended on New York City to agitate against the Park51 Islamic center, located about two blocks from Ground Zero, capturing national attention. The opposition was led by a network of anti-Muslim activists who took American panic over Islam mainstream that summer.
Opposition to mosques has since spread around the country. Some mosques, like one in Murfreesboro, Tennesee, attracted the opposition of figures like Pamela Geller, a member of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the anti-Muslim inner circle” of a national anti-Islamic movement. Geller published numerous articles inveighing against the Murfreesboro mosque, and continued to rile up opposition to Muslims in the city after the mosque broke ground. In June 2013, Geller lead a rally outside a community hearing on anti-Muslim hate speech in Murfreesboro, while inside hecklers cheered at the mention of a burned-down mosque in Columbia, Tennessee. Geller and her allies pioneered accusations that mosques are hubs of anti-American radicalism that have taken hold among mosque opponents around the country. And the attacks are not just limited to zoning hearings. Mosques have been vandalized and set on fire.
“They’re visible targets,” says Corey Saylor, the director of the project to combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In that sense, mosques are similar to Muslim women in hijabs, who have also been targeted by attacks.
DEEPA IYER, A SENIOR FELLOW at the Center for Social Inclusion, told The American Prospect that “the narrative of the ‘Muslim terrorist’ has been imprinted on the minds of Americans.”
She attributes that to “misleading media narratives” about Muslims and government programs that target Muslim communities for surveillance. “All of this contributes to a climate where you see a range of biases and injustices targeting Muslim communities,” says Iyer. “Mosque opposition is one form of it. But as you know there are multiple forms of it: Everything from hate violence to airline profiling to school bullying.”
Many activists warn that Islamophobia is only going to increase under Trump, who is bringing anti-Muslim bigots into seats of power. Michael Flynn, Trump’s incoming national security adviser, called Islam a “cancer,” and sits on the board of ACT! For America, one of the largest anti-Muslim groups in the country. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called Islam a “political ideology”—as opposed to a religion—claimed that Islamic law is akin to “Nazism,” and frequently hosted Pamela Geller on his radio show before joining the Trump team.
Attorney General-designee Sessions has received awards from and expressed admiration for anti-Muslim leaders.
Muslim groups like CAIR also expect that Trump will resurrect the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, a Bush-era program that registered non-citizen visa holders, mostly from Muslim-majority countries, in a database. Those who registered were required to check in with immigration officials, and to inform them of things like changes of address. But civil rights groups say thousands of people who went to register were instead deported for such visa violations as overstaying their time in the U.S.
Obama killed the regulatory framework behind the registry in December 2016, but Trump could revive it.
“What we expect, given Trump’s rhetoric on campaign trail, will be that he will promote policies designed to make the lives of minorities in this country unpleasant,” said CAIR’s Saylor.
Little wonder that Muslims-Americans like Nadim Ahmed, a 49-year-old resident of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, are worried. Ahmed has taken a keen interest in the Basking Ridge mosque dispute, and hopes to see the day when his community inaugurates the first mosque in town. But he has been shaken by local officials’ objections to the proposed mosque.
“What was lurking under the surface has been emboldened,” Ahmed says. Now that Trump is president, he wonders, “Are [town officials] going to say, ‘we’re going to ride [lawsuits] out,’ and say, ‘maybe Sessions will help me?’’’