BAYONNE (New Jersey), March 8 — Rival Muslim and Christian prayers, incendiary accusations and angry yells: deep-seated tensions over plans for the first dedicated mosque in just one US town were laid bare in one extraordinary, six-hour meeting.
It ended shortly before midnight Monday when the zoning board failed to approve plans to turn a disused industrial site on a quiet residential street into an Islamic center in Bayonne, New Jersey a 45-minute drive from New York.
Earlier that day President Donald Trump signed a revised travel ban on refugees and travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, compounding a growing sense among some American Muslims that they are under siege.
Over and over again, largely white, often older residents raised the same complaints. It would be too noisy. The narrow street would be too congested. What about parking? Who would enforce the maximum capacity of 135 people at any one event?
That the Muslim community had sought to meet concerns by reducing the proposed capacity, scrapping a bimonthly family event and splitting Friday prayers into two sessions to keep down traffic only appeared to arouse more suspicion.
“It’s just not a good fit,” was the phrase heard again and again.
For months, a string of public meetings have sparked record turnout, replete with insults, anger and hostility have left some feeling discriminated against and unwelcome.
Tensions were palpable even before Monday’s meeting was called to order in a high school auditorium. While Muslim men stood to one side quietly praying, a group of residents loudly recited the Lord’s Prayer.
“Can you get these cell phones out of my face please,” snapped one woman as a member of the audience tried to take pictures.
Don’t want mosque
As members of the public came to the podium one by one to ask questions and make statements, speakers were heckled and interrupted. Board chairman Mark Urban repeatedly threatened to throw out troublemakers.
Police escorted out at least one particularly irate resident.
“How many children have died under this so-called religion?” yelled one woman.
“You’re coming to a small, tight-knit, loving community where we all want it to remain that way, peaceful and quiet, we don’t want this big mosque,” said another on the brink of tears.
Supporters of the mosque accused opponents of being prejudiced. Opponents denied they were bigots saying their concerns about traffic and noise were legitimate and had nothing to do with religion.
But Urban, who voted against the mosque, spread the blame wide.
“It’s on both sides. This issue just got out of hand,” he said.
“Some of the things I’ve seen I’m embarrassed by and I hope whatever happens tonight when we leave here, we can get along, because that’s the most important thing,” he added.
Muslims who had grown up in Bayonne and were holding down professional jobs said they had never before felt so discriminated against and said the opposition felt akin to religious persecution.
“Those are things that are incredibly offensive,” said graduate student Hussein Eid, 24, about some of the objections.
“That’s the kind of stance you take against someone who is your enemy, someone you don’t want to be there. It’s insulting,” he said.
When the board vote ultimately failed to approve the project, Urban denied it had anything to do with religion and urged Muslims to find an alternative site.
The year-long campaign to convert the site into a community center is now in tatters and Muslims have nowhere suitable to pray in town. The lease on a basement ran out last month.
“They’re not considering the whole community,” said Fahima Andersen, 59, who runs her own consulting firm and who said she wanted only to take her 10-year-old son to a mosque without expensive Uber rides out of town.
“It’s very sad for me because we brought a house here, we wanted to put down roots here,” she told AFP.
But if Muslims were left shocked and saddened, for others it was welcome news.
“There are so many stories about these people being vicious, cutting heads off and things off, I don’t need that,” John Reynolds, 86, told AFP, saying he had lived down the block from the proposed site for 50 years.
When it came to Trump’s travel ban, he was supportive.
“I think he’s doing great,” Reynolds said.
“I mean he ain’t playing around, man.” — AFP