Hundreds of Newton County residents packed the historic courthouse in Covington Monday evening for public hearings on a planned mosque and Muslim cemetery that has sparked fierce opposition.
The majority of speakers came out against the mosque, citing concerns over terrorism and assimilation of Muslims into the community. Some expressed fear that the mosque would become an al-Qaida training camp or impose Sharia law on the community.
“To say we wish to disallow this project based on religious discrimination … is ludicrous and hypocritical,” said a woman who did not give her name. “They are discriminating against us by calling us infidels who do not believe in their religion.”
“We have the right to protect ourselves and our country,” she concluded. Her comments were met with whoops and cheers from the 300 people in the audience.
The uproar has prompted the county to issue a temporary moratorium on new places of worship.
Al Maad Al Islami, a Doraville mosque, purchased 135 acres on Ga. 162 in June 2015, when it also received a county permit for a place of worship. The mosque does not have any business before the county. It has not submitted plans or applied for building permits. The board of commissioners has no plans to vote on any action following Monday’s hearings.
County Commission Chairman Keith Ellis said the purpose of Monday’s town hall meetings was to “provide our citizens with a platform to express their concerns and ask questions about the proposed project.”
No one from the mosque was present to answer questions. Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Channel 2 Action News that members of the community may be too scared of the negative reaction to attend the meetings.
“It gives Newton County a bad reputation, it gives Georgia a bad reputation, it gives America a bad reputation,” he said. “For the sake of defending the Constitution, upholding American values … I encourage all Georgians to speak out against the unfair, unethical and unconstitutional behavior.”
A young Muslim man named Zouhir said he has lived in Newton County for eight years and has been welcomed.
“I think I’ve seen more hate tonight than I’ve seen in the last eight years,” he said. “The Islam (that) people are talking about is not the Islam I grew up with.”
Zouhir said that while many speakers referenced ISIS, Muslims are the ones dying on the front lines of the war against the group.
“Get yourself a Muslim friend. It probably, I think, will open your mind a lot,” he said to a smattering of applause.
Others also expressed concern about the tenor of the comments. One of them was a young woman named Kendra Miller, who said she was of Jewish descent.
“If this discussion was happening 100 years ago there’s a good chance it would be about my people,” she said. “I’ve heard whispers of killing people as I’ve sat here, as I’ve stood in line. … I would hate for us to fall to that level again.”
Brigette and Anthony Washington recently returned to Newton County after spending four years in the United Arab Emirates, where Brigette taught high school English. Speaking before the meeting, they said they were concerned by what they considered anti-Muslim sentiment.
“We’ve had very positive experiences with Arabs and Muslims from different parts of the Middle East,” said Brigette Washington, adding that they were treated with the “utmost respect” in the U.A.E.
Anthony Washington, a retired law enforcement officer with the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, waved a satirical “obituary” for the United States that someone had distributed among those waiting in line to enter the courthouse. The paper concluded that a “good Muslim” cannot be a “good American.”
“So much of what I lived contradicts what I am reading,” he said. “I was treated better there than I was here.”
The NAACP and more than a dozen Muslim groups have called for the county to be investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice. Ellis, the county chairman, declined to comment on the threat of legal action.
County Commissioner Nancy Schulz said in a statement Friday that she respects “the diversity of our community and the rights of our citizenry to express their opinions.”
“Additionally, I support the county in its commitment to follow federal and state requirements and local ordinances and laws on all county zoning matters,” she said.
Commissioner Lanier Sims said he supported the freedom of religion.
“I’m not going to say there were racist rants,” he said. “Everybody (has) an opinion.”
The county’s moratorium on new places of worship is limited to five weeks. County Attorney Megan Martin said it is not intended to block construction of the mosque, but rather to give the county time to study its ordinances as they related to “campus-like” places of worship.
Mohammad Islam, the imam of the Doraville mosque, previously said his congregation plans to build a cemetery and “simple” mosque, and eventually a park, school and residences.