Muslims in Bayonne, New Jersey, have wanted an Islamic center and prayer hall for nearly two decades — they currently pray in the cramped basement of an elementary school.
After three years of planning and fundraising, they purchased an abandoned warehouse on a dead-end street in 2015 for a new mosque, setting off heated debates, opposition, and the local bureaucratic process.
On Tuesday, a much-anticipated zoning board meeting about the mosque was postponed for the third time.
Bill Finnerty, a lawyer hired by the group behind the mosque and community center, a non-profit called Bayonne Muslims, told BuzzFeed News the recent delay came about because they needed more time to complete a traffic study for the proposed site. The zoning board has “legitimate questions,” he said.
No new date for the zoning hearing has been set.
Zoning ordinances and other local bureaucracy are often cited for critiquing and rejecting mosque proposals around the nation, and proponents of the mosques say the issues are nothing more than masked discrimination.
Zoning issues vary from town to town, but reasons cited have ranged from concerns about traffic congestion and parking issues to proposals rejected because of temporary septic tank concerns and mosque structures that are deemed not “harmonious” with “existing buildings.”
In Bayonne, a city 10 miles southwest of Manhattan, “some people [against the mosque] are raising legitimate issues about parking and traffic,” Finnerty said, “but all the other reasons I’ve heard are basically fear and racism.”
Every Friday for the past eight years, 180 Muslim Americans in Bayonne descend into the basement of St. Henry's School. Underground, they hold prayers, talk, have meals, and break their fast in the month of Ramadan.
The basement can’t fit everyone for Friday prayers each week, so two separate services are held. The basement has become their mosque and community, one that they have come to love and cherish — but at the end of the day, it is still a basement, and they want to do more with their growing community.
Maham Tariq, 28, has lived in Bayonne for most of her life. She, like other Muslims in Bayonne, wait for the day they can pray freely in a place that offers more than just a roof over their head.
“We want to create a place to feel safe, to belong, in a healthy and supportive environment,” said Tariq, a mental health counselor whose parents emigrated from Pakistan in 1997.
“The idea is to create a safe spot for this community," said Tariq of the plans to build a Muslim community center with a prayer hall, classrooms, library, and fitness center.
At the last zoning board meeting, in January, the group against the mosque and counter-protesters met outside. Anti-mosque protesters held signs that read "If the Mosque Comes the Mayor Go’s," while others just read “Trump.” Counter-protesters held “No to RACISM" and "Anti-Muslim Bigotry” signs.
What followed was a three-and-a-half-hour meeting where people for and against the mosque faced off during the question part of the meeting, attendees told BuzzFeed News.
Those opposed have cited Donald Trump’s comments about banning all Muslim immigrants, stopping immigrants from crossing the border, Islamic extremism, zoning issues, and concerns about traffic and noise.
More recently, “STOP THE MOSQUE” and “SAVE BAYONNE” signs can be seen around the city of 65,000 residents.
“Save Bayonne from what?” said Alaa, 19, who didn’t want to provide her last name.
“What is that supposed to imply? Muslims have lived in Bayonne for 30 years,” she said, pointing to her neighbor's sign. “We’ve lived here for 11 years and we’ve never experienced anything like this.”
Earlier this week, a flyer mailed out to Bayonne residents asked, “Is there also an underlying plan to turn Bayonne's East Side into a closed Muslim community?" the Jersey Journal reported on Monday.
Joseph Wisniewski, who lives a block away from the proposed site, told BuzzFeed News his primary concerns are about noise, traffic, and potential violations of the city’s zoning laws.
“There's going to be a huge amount of cars coming and going,” Wisniewski said. "I would have the same issues if there was going to be a movie theater. Since it's a mosque, it’s turned into a racial issue." He was quoted earlier in the year citing the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Trump’s comments about immigration, and the shootings in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last year that were inspired by terrorist propaganda, as reasons behind his opposition.
“There's always the thought [of terrorism] in the back of people's minds, and I can’t ignore it,” he told BuzzFeed News of terrorism committed by Muslims. “You saw what happened yesterday in Istanbul. It’s a known fact that a majority of major terrorist attacks are from people who attended a mosque.”
Bayonne Muslims, in a concerted effort to quell the communities questions and apprehension about the mosque, released an informational report on the Bayonne Muslims Community Center.
The group also launched a website with an “Islam 101” section as well as a FAQ section that answers basic questions such as “Why are you building a Community Center in Bayonne?”, “What are we planning on doing there?", and “What activities will you hold?”
A recent post on the Bayonne Muslim’s site condemned the “barbaric attack in Orlando” and said, “Such actions against fellow human beings of any background go against our faith, and are absolutely against our religion.”
Struggles to build mosques have occurred with regularity across the country for over a decade now.
In recent years, the opposition has become increasingly more vehement, occasionally erupting in hateful rhetoric and outbursts and using aforementioned zoning regulations to stall or defeat proposals.
After having their mosque proposals denied after years, some Muslim American communities find themselves left with one option — file a lawsuit in federal court against their own towns and cities.
This is the path a Muslim community 30 miles west of Bayonne, in the New Jersey suburb of Basking Ridge, took after their proposal to build a mosque went through “39 public hearings, and nearly four years of demands by town officials and planning board members for one change after another,” the New York Times reported in March. Their lawsuit says the planning board broke “a law unanimously passed by Congress in 2000 protecting houses of worship from being unduly burdened by land use regulations,” according to the article.
Michael Alonso, a Bayonne Republican and one of the mosque’s most vocal critics, said in a recent statement, “In light of the Orlando terrorist attack recently committed in the name of Islam, a mosque in Bayonne would be unsafe and unwise.”
The Jersey Journal reported that Bayonne’s chief of staff, Andrew Casais, said Alonso’s "use [of] the tragic attack in Orlando to capitalize on his local opposition to an application before the Zoning Board” was “shameful."
“This is just not the right time, this is not the right place,” said Alonso, who referenced ISIS, the Orlando massacre, and Christians being beheaded, in an interview on June 17 with local affiliate ABC7.
“They meet right here. They’re growing rapidly. They fill up the whole basement. Their population is exploding,” Alonso said of Bayonne’s Muslims, adding that “residents don’t feel safe.”
The Jersey Journal also reported that Vincent Cuseglio, a local GOP chairman, filed a complaint against Alonso with the board of elections for alleged “instances of people voting twice and out-of-city residents casting ballots” during a committee election in early June. Alonso is an outspoken member of a new group called the “Real Republicans” that is battling with the GOP in the city.
Ray Worrall of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office confirmed with BuzzFeed News that allegations of fraud between two Republican groups are currently “under review” after being “handed over” to the prosecutor’s office by the board of elections. Worrall would not comment on specifics, including people’s names.
Alonso, who has been an unsuccessful candidate in at least three local and state elections, also appears to be the person behind a fundraising page called “Stop the Mosque in Bayonne NJ.” The page, created in May by a “Michael Alonso” of “Bayonne, NJ,” has raised $10 of a $3,000 stated goal.
Alonso did not respond to repeated requests for comment via social media, telephone, email, and notes left at his home.
The fight in Bayonne has also been raging online. Two Facebook groups opposing the mosque sprung up days after the building proposal was announced last year.
“Neighbors United Against Building the Mosque” is a private Facebook group with more than 600 members. A Hudson Reporter article from September 2015 quoted one member of the group writing, “Churches are being closed and mosques are being built. There’s a lot of infiltration going on around the world. It’s a known fact a lot of these mosques are funded by oil money and terrorists. I’m concerned about safety and the quality of life here in Bayonne.”
Another public Facebook group, “Stop the Mosque in Bayonne,” describes itself as “not a HATE SITE.” The group’s lengthy description states:
There is a BIG difference between being anti Islam (macro-level) and against individual Muslims (micro-level). We do not discriminate against the individual.
We do take a stance against the rise of mosques which are advancing this second society within our own. We take a stance against the CLERICS who regularly use the Qur'an and Hadiths as a way to incite violence and non compliance with our laws. We take a stance against the embodiment of those passages in the Sharia legal system.
The description cites a common but otherwise unfounded fear of Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) and Islamic courts taking root in the U.S.
In addition to a picture of the former twin towers with the hashtag “#NeverForget,” the group’s photos include a quote attributed to Winston Churchill that says Islam ”provides incentives to slaughter, and in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men filled with a wild and merciless fanaticism.”
Another photo showed a bloody scene of slaughtered animals with the caption “Happy Eid Al Adha?”, referencing one of Islam’s two holiest days.
Requests to interview a member of the group were not answered. A date for the next zoning board meeting about the mosque and community center has not been set.