Fear of the dead one of many fringe ideas fueling mosque debate

Newton County dodged another attempted debacle this week when the county planning commission discarded a request to adopt burial restrictions based on junk science and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The request for new regulations by Commissioner John Douglas was a barely veiled attempt to discourage a proposed mosque and cemetery development that has upset scores of local residents and stoked fears of a wave of radical Islamic resettlement into the suburban Atlanta county. The theory is that the Islamic custom of burying a departed loved one without a casket is a threat to the county’s water quality.

"Many of our citizens … still use wells for their daily water usage," Douglas explained in a commission meeting earlier this month, as reported by the Newton Citizen. "We are blessed with abundant water supplies in our rivers, streams and lakes. None of that will count for anything if we do not aggressively protect what we have."

Mark Potok of the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center said he doesn’t buy Douglas’ sudden interest in water quality.

“I cannot say what is in the commissioner’s head but it is very difficult to believe this is not simply a dodge to prevent a mosque and cemetery from being constructed,” he said.

Potok said he sees it as another instance of extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric making its way into mainstream political discourse, something he tied to the fierce nationalism of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Trump has normalized this kind of religious antagonism,” Potok said.

Douglas proposed requiring anyone interred in Newton County be buried inside a coffin, thereby protecting the fragile watershed from their toxic remains. Typically Muslims, like other religious groups, do not embalm their dead, and in many cases they bury their dead without a coffin.

‘No public policy purpose served’

There are tons of problems — scientific, practical and legal — with this line of thinking.

First, County Manager Lloyd Kerr immediately noted that non-casket burial was specifically allowed by state law and the county could not regulate private graveyards in this way or infringe upon religious beliefs.

Legalities aside, there’s no science to back up Douglas’ fears.

“There is absolutely no public policy purpose served by this, not even a little bit,” said Josh Slocum.

Slocum is executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a non-profit that advocates for low-cost and alternative funeral arrangements. Slocum said there is no reason to fear traditional burial.

“This is not a gray area. This is not an area where people can agree to disagree,” he said. “Cemetery burial is not a public health issue.”

Decomposition is a natural process, he said. Animals die every day and return to the earth, unburied and unembalmed, without harming our water. For most of our history almost everyone was buried in the United States without much preparation or the benefit of modern containers, he said.

Slocum said Douglas’ proposal doesn’t even survive on its own merits. Caskets leak and concrete vaults crack and their contents leach into the soil, he said.

Origins of the toxic graveyard

I geeked out on this topic and looked into some of the scientific research into the possible contaminating aspects of cemeteries, and it turns out the scientific community isn't too concerned. Dead bodies break down into their natural elements, and soil density and chemistry conspire to hold any surviving bacteria and viruses long enough to eliminate any threat to the public, according to a survey of the scientific literature by the World Health Organization.

Even in densely packed, urban cemeteries like the Cemitério de Vila Formosa in Brazil, Latin America’s largest municipal cemetery, researchers found no evidence that cemeteries are environmentally dangerous.

So where did Douglas get the idea that such a measure was needed? The outgoing commissioner (he is not running for re-election) did not respond to my requests for comment, but the toxic graveyard theory is one of several lines of attack promoted by mosque opponents when news of the project broke this summer.

A local activist emailed commissioners in August comparing the cemetery to problems the county had with a leaking landfill.

“Now we are talking about putting a Muslim burial site in the same neighborhood, sharing the same water table, and flowing into the Yellow River or the South River (look out Lake Jackson),” he wrote.

History of the ‘diseased other’

The same activist objected to the mosque on a variety of other grounds, including unfounded suspicions that the Doraville-based religious community largely made up of Bangledeshi immigrants wanted to impose Sharia law and go to war with Western Civilization.

Cas Mudde, a University of Georgia professor of international affairs and an expert on political extremism, said the debate is “seriously shocking.”

“The idea of the ‘diseased other’ is straight racism. I can’t call it any other way,” he said.

But he said it is in line with an extremist tendency in Europe and America to attack Muslim immigrant communities on ostensibly non-religious grounds like water safety or zoning. And promoting the idea of immigrants as “diseased” has a long, sad history, he said.

Over the past several years the same rhetoric has been used by opponents in towns in Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Some of those cities have refused permits for Islamic cemeteries after critics stoked fears of tainted water and now face federal lawsuits as a result.

It appears that will not happen in Newton County. Commissioner Nancy Schulz commended the county planning board for not being “swayed by hearsay or fear.”

“They did what was best for the county,” she said. “Good for them.”

Even if it had made it to the commission, Schulz indicated Douglas didn’t have the votes.

“We are not going to make any decisions that affect a religious group,” she said.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the planning commission’s vote to reject Douglas’ suggested regulations.

“The great news is that civil rights groups did not have to lift a finger to stop him. This time, the people of Newton County stood up for religious freedom on their own. I am confident that Newton County’s commissioners will follow their lead,” he said.

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