A local Muslim community in Bayonne, New Jersey, was, last week, denied space for building a mosque by the zoning board. The proposal for a mosque and community center at the site of an empty 8,500-square-foot warehouse has been the subject of much debate and discussion for the past year-and-a-half, Waheed Akbar, founder and secretary of the nonprofit group Bayonne Muslims, told Desi Talk.
After more than five hours at the town meeting March 6, the group failed by one vote to pass the motion to allow the creation of the mosque and community center. The zoning board cited the hike in traffic and parking concerns as reasons for opposition to the mosque, Akbar said.
Despite paying $1 million for the property in 2015, Akbar said he and his group have faced an angry campaign by local residents, graffiti slurs outside their temporary prayer hall in a local school and numerous zoning and planning hurdles.
The group is also planning to file a federal lawsuit to contest the denial, Akbar said. The federal Justice Department is also undergoing its own separate investigation, he added.
A New York Times report describes Bayonne as a working-class city of some 63,000 people, where Muslims have lived for decades without their own mosque. Akbar told Desi Talk, the area has a good concentration of Muslims, not just from South Asia, but also from other parts of the world.
Akbar, 38, a Bayonne resident, whose family is originally from Pakistan, told The New York Times that the community never faced any negativity from the neighbors. “Everyone was very helpful,” Akbar said, adding that it changed when the group bought the two-story warehouse with the intent of renovating it into an Islamic center. The center would host prayers five times a day, religious classes for children, and a soup kitchen open to all, Akbar said.
The anti-mosque cause was picked up by people across town, who formed a Facebook group “Stop The Mosque in Bayonne” and put up signs that said things like “Save Bayonne” and “Stop the Mosque.”
One of them was Joseph Basile, the pastor of Grace Bible Fellowship, a local evangelical church, who said his house was vandalized several times after he posted the signs, including with a brick through the window.
The New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called the decision bias motivated.
“As has happened with several New Jersey Muslim communities, local anti-Muslim opponents to new mosque construction have attempted to hide their bigoted intentions behind zoning technicalities,” CAIR-NJ executive director James Sues said.
Several mosque applications in North Jersey faced similar hurdles in getting clearance to build in recent years.
In 2014, Midland Park residents fought against a Korean church being converted into a mosque. Residents crowded the town’s zoning board hearings to express concerns over traffic and noise that might be generated by a mosque. The El Zahra Islamic Center was eventually built, following an appeal that was denied. But just before opening, its welcome sign was defaced. A swastika and male genitalia were carved into the wooden sign, The Asbury Park Press reported.
In Clifton last year, residents aired concerns that a newly erected mosque flooded streets with parked cars.
A 2016 Department of Justice report found that once federal investigations into discrimination were opened, municipalities settled 84 percent of cases involving non-Muslim houses of worship, compared with 20 percent of cases involving Muslims. Seven out of the last eight suits brought by the department involved mosques or Islamic schools.