For the last few years my efforts to counter anti-Muslim bigotry have been grounded upon the hope that if a person has a Muslim friend, he or she will have a more positive view of Muslims overall. In fact, a December poll supports that very thesis, finding a 20-plus percent more favorable view of Islam and Muslims by Americans who know a Muslim when compared to people who don’t.
That’s what makes the mosque controversy in the upscale town of Bernards Township, New Jersey, so astounding. The person spearheading the mosque, M. Ali Chaudry, is not only known by the community, but well liked. After all, he served as mayor of the town in 2004. And before that Chaudry, who has lived in Bernards Township since 1976, was elected to the town council twice as well as its Board of Education. Add to that Chaudry is a Republican in a GOP-controlled town.
Yet despite Chaudry being a fixture in this town of approximately 25,000 people located 45 minutes from Manhattan, this past December the Bernards Township Planning Board denied his application to build a mosque so he and the other Muslims in the community could have a place to pray. And this was after dragging out the process for over four years, requiring 39 public hearings, and demanding changes to the proposed mosque never before asked of any other proposed house of worship.
“Having lived in town for nearly 40 years and having served on the Board of Education and as mayor, I was shocked at the denial,” Chaudry explained to me. The added irony is that Chaudry once served on the very planning board that rejected the application, citing a “lack of details” over issues such as parking and traffic safety. Chaudry vehemently denies these claims.
Chaudry’s life truly represents the American Dream. He immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in 1976. Hired by AT&T, he worked tirelessly (like immigrants tend to) and rose to the level of CFO of AT&T’s public relations division. Being grateful for America accepting him and his family, he wanted to show his appreciation by giving back to his community. He did just that by serving on town boards as a volunteer and as an elected official. In addition he’s currently president of the Rotary Club, and in 2013 Gov. Chris Christie appointed him to a three-year term on the New Jersey Commission on National and Community Service.
Having a local mosque to worship in (as opposed to renting out space at the Township’s community center as they do now) was simply another manifestation of that American Dream. America’s promise freedom of religion is for all, not just for a few select faiths.
I visited the location of the proposed mosque on Church Street. It’s not a sleepy alcove. Rather, it’s a busy street that’s home to two large churches, a school, and various businesses including a restaurant. But the idea of a mosque on Church Street—or on any street in the town for that matter—was clearly too much for some there.
As I drove up the driveway of the proposed mosque location I was struck by the numerous professionally made signs on the property the Muslim community had posted that read “Proud to be American” featuring the American flag. Despite being persecuted for their faith and even having their mailbox defaced with the word “ISIS,” the Muslims there were still proud as ever to be Americans.
To say Chaudry did everything asked of him by local officials is an understatement; he did more. Being a longtime resident, Chaudry wanted the mosque to fit in with the aesthetics of his community. Consequently, the proposed mosque had neither minarets nor a large dome like a typical mosque. Rather it was designed to resemble one of the town’s upscale homes.
But still Chaudry could sense the growing opposition to Muslims having a place of worship in Bernards Township. For example, a town ordinance required every proposed place of worship to have a ratio of one parking space for every three congregants. So with about 150 Muslims expected at the mosque, the original plan submitted provided 50 parking spots. However, the planning board instead surprisingly required the mosque to offer a whopping 107 parking spaces. Yet still Chaudry did as asked.
However, it soon became clear given the anti-Muslim comments of mosque opponents that this dispute was not just about land-use issues. As James Sues, the executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey office, explained, “Xenophobes hiding behind zoning technicalities is becoming more and more common. But the Bernards Township case is really an extreme example.”
Sadly in my home state of New Jersey, this mosque controversy is not an isolated incident. There’s currently a mosque controversy brewing in Bayonne. And just eight miles away in Bridgewater Township, a well-publicized ugly mosque controversy raged for years. There the local officials also dragged out the application process, finally denying the proposed mosque.
The local Muslim leaders responded by filing a successful federal lawsuit where the judge found the mosque denial was not legally justified, citing the “anti-Muslim prejudice within the community.” Bridgewater ultimately paid $7.75 million in damages as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Now back in Bernards Township, after the planning board’s formal denial, Chaudry’s options were to either go quietly into the night or to fight. Chaudry explained that the mosque denial made some in the Muslim community feel like they were not “equal to other people” in the town simply because of their faith. So Chaudry chose to fight, noting “there are times when we have to stand up for our rights and seek justice for the benefit of all.”
In March, they filed a lawsuit in federal court versus the town to simply have the same rights as his fellow Americans. The complaint details the anti-Muslim comments made by those opposed to the mosque, such as a local volunteer firefighter telling Chaudry: “Eleven brothers died on 9/11 and now you want to put a mosque next to my house with the insignia of the people who did that.” And one of the town’s elected officials posted comments in favor of Ben Carson’s declaration that a Muslim should not be president of the United States.
After a slew of negative press and the Department of Justice recently announcing it was opening a civil rights investigation into the mosque denial, last week the town’s planning board voted to give Chaudry 90 days to submit a new site plan for the mosque. Is this truly a sincere effort by the town to resolve the issue? (Keep in mind Chaudry has already submitted numerous revised site plans as the town previously requested.) Is this legal maneuvering by local officials to help fight the lawsuit? Or is it simply a PR ploy to counter the media coverage painting the local officials as being motivated by or at least giving in to anti-Muslim animus?
It’s unclear but Chaudry explained he would happily “sit down with anyone willing to engage in a dialogue to better understand what Islam is and who Muslims are.” Let’s hope they take him up on his offer. In any event, the question Bernards Township officials must now answer is whether they support the quintessential American value of religious liberty or whether they side with anti-Muslim bigotry. The people of New Jersey eagerly await their answer.