By John L. Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani
It is the 10th anniversary of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Hold your applause.
The federal bill President Clinton signed into law in 2000 enhanced Justice Department powers to protect planned and existing religious sites; but, in reality, cases of discrimination against Islamic centers and mosques have actually spiked. Earlier this week, the U.S. Justice Department said it is watching 11 cases of potential land-use discrimination against Muslims, a notable increase given that the law is intended to protect religious minorities in zoning disputes and its very existence suggests a growing awareness of religious pluralism and acceptance in America.
The report, which tracks and monitors discrimination against mosques, synagogues, churches and other religious sites, such as Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras, serves as a sad reminder that religious discrimination remains strong in the U.S. and that Muslims struggle for acceptance. According to the report, the department said it is monitoring 18 cases of possible discrimination against Muslims over the last decade.
The report does not mention the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero. However, eight of the cases have been opened since May right around the time the controversy caused a national uproar. While the controversy in New York grabbed headlines and enflamed tempers, similar controversies have taken place around the country for several years.
According to the Pew Center on Religion & Public Life, 35 proposed mosques and Islamic centers have met with community resistance over the last two years. The report mentioned an effort in Wallingford, Conn., in which Tariq Farid petitioned for a zoning variance to build a mosque on residential property but was rejected after residents voiced concerns about traffic and parking. Another neighbor expressed concerns over the Muslims’ treatment of women. The Islamic Center of North Fulton in Alpharetta, Ga., sued the city alleging religious discrimination after the city council denied a proposed expansion.
Other examples speak to intolerance and misperceptions triumphing over reason. A zoning board in Walkersville, Md. rejected a proposal from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to buy 224-acre farm after residents voiced opposition and fear of Islam. The Ahmadiyya community bought newspaper ads, knocked on doors and offered residents use of the gyms as a means to win support. Ultimately, the case was settled in August 2009 when the town agreed to buy the land for $4.7 million. In Amherst, Mass., the Muslim community withdrew its application in June 2010 citing difficulties ensuring the property and negative comments from neighbors.
It is unsurprising that the Justice Department has launched 51 discrimination investigations under the law since 2000. The cases involved seven Muslim, six Jewish, three Buddhist and 31 Christian sites. Seven of those cases went to court and some involved multi-million damage awards.
Let’s note that not every mosque or Islamic center has met with opposition, but the trend of Islamophobia remains strong. There are approximately 1,897 mosques in the U.S., according to Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky. The Mosque Study Project 2000, which was sponsored by four Muslim organizations, counted 1,209 mosques across the country. This data suggests that about one-third of mosques have opened in the last decade.
Nevertheless, the trend to discourage the construction of mosques and Islamic centers remains real. The public’s understanding of Islam is riddled with misperceptions that endanger our ideals. We’re better than this.
Parking is important, but not that important.
Prof. John L. Esposito, author of The Future of Islam, is University Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.