In another sad reminder of anti-Muslim bigotry sweeping our nation, a township in New Jersey has come under fire for denying the local Muslim community their religious rights.
Bernards Township, a town of approximately 25,000 people, created barriers for years before eventually rejecting the plans to build a mosque in the area. It is currently facing a federal lawsuit alleging the town’s planning board adopted “discriminatory intent” and imposed “unreasonable” demands.
While the local authorities claim their rejection was driven by the lack of details in the application instead of the apparent Islamophobia, a former mayor of the town, who's spearheading the mosque proposal, has a different opinion about what's going on in Bernards Township.
“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,” M. Ali Chaudry, who served as mayor of the town in 2004, told The Daily Beast.
Chaudry immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in 1976. As a Republican in a GOP-majority town, he has twice been elected to the town council as well as the Board of Education. Ironically, he has also served on the very same planning board that is now blocking his request of a proper place of worship.
The site of the mosque, according to the Daily Beast, features posters and banners reading “Proud to be American.” Sadly, despite being patriotic citizens, some Muslims in the area have faced increasing incidences of discrimination, like having their mailboxes defaced with the word “ISIS,” for instance.
Being a part of the administration for so long, Chaudry did everything the officials asked him to do in order to get his permit approved, including providing more parking spaces than initially required. The former mayor also agreed with the demand of no minarets, but he gradually came to believe the delay and the final rejection had more to with anti-Muslim sentiments than anything else.
The legal complaint he filed in March also details the anti-Muslim comments made by Bernards Township residents who can’t bear the thought of having a mosque in their town.
“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,” a local volunteer firefighter apparently told Chaudry.
Since there is no mosque in the area, the Muslim population is forced to rent out a space in the township’s community center, but the authorities apparently couldn’t care less.
“Xenophobes hiding behind zoning technicalities is becoming more and more common,” explained James Sues, the executive director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations’ New Jersey office. “But the Bernards Township case is really an extreme example.”
The town’s planning board recently voted to give the Muslim group 90 days to submit a new site plan for the mosque. Interestingly, the move came right after the Department of Justice announced it opened a civil rights investigation into the controversy.
Although the entire thing looks more like a PR stunt than an actual step to resolve the issue, Chaudry, in the meantime, is ready to “sit down with anyone willing to engage in a dialogue to better understand what Islam is and who Muslims are.”