Behind Kennesaw’s rejection of a storefront mosque

Nayyer Islam’s house is close enough for me call him a neighbor, though he lives in the plusher confines of the Marietta Country Club.

He is a physician – a diagnostic radiologist with a comfortable practice in Buckhead. Apparently he is very good at what he does. Islam studied medicine in his native Pakistan, but his residency included Harvard Medical School. He is a U.S. citizen with two American-born children, and a devout Muslim.

Islam has marveled at his adopted country’s acceptance of religious diversity. “Every Friday my secretary – they know I’ll go for a one-hour prayer break. They don’t schedule any patients during that time. They’re so respectful. This is the kind of America that I know of,” he said.

But the good doctor has learned that some parts of the United States have a multi-layered system of citizenship – and that he is a member of the lower tier. On Monday, the Kennesaw City Council decided that it would rather endure the time and expense of a federal lawsuit rather than approve a two-year use permit for a small, storefront mosque in a struggling shopping center off U.S. 41.

Only a week earlier, Islam had participated in a public hearing on the mosque permit that was remarkable for, if nothing else, the imagination of Kennesaw residents worried about terrorism and what happens during Islamic worship services. “There’s something I’ve seen in a video where they don’t have shirts on and they cut themselves and blood comes out,” one fellow ventured.

“That was an eye-opener, that night,” confessed Islam, whose family is one of 20 or so behind the Suffa Dawat Center. A week later, the city council would bow to those fears.

Kennesaw may view itself as the spiritual home of the Second Amendment, a place where the head of every household is required to own a firearm – unless he or she doesn’t want to.

But on Monday, the city proved itself far less keen on the First Amendment.

That night, you could tell that city officials felt themselves under a good deal of pressure. We’re told that a 5:30 p.m. dress rehearsal – er, work session – preceded the 6:30 p.m. council meeting. But this is only hearsay.

In a rather liberal interpretation of the state’s open meeting laws, the entirety of City Hall was locked down for the early session. Witnesses were barred.

It was a balmy exile outside, with a beautiful sunset and a modest circus for entertainment. Signs carried by a handful of protestors included “Ban Islam,” and “Islam wants no peace.” One fellow, who described himself as a Christian, waved Israel’s national flag – thinking it would cause Islamic blood to boil.

In fact, this was something of a libel. During recent fights in Alpharetta and Lilburn to accommodate Islamic congregations, the Anti-Defamation League formally came down on the Muslim side. The Middle East is one thing, but in the U.S., beleaguered religions tend to stick together.

The most entertaining character in the protests was a fellow who zipped around in an electric scooter with three flags trailing behind – two American banners, and the discarded ’56 state flag with its Confederate battle emblem. He wore a holstered sidearm, dangled a pair of handcuffs over the back of his jeans, and passed out free copies of the U.S. Constitution.

A quick check showed that the First Amendment, with its promise of the freedom to worship as one pleases, was still there. Whew.

With the rehearsal over, the doors to City Hall were unlocked and the crowd allowed in, naturally dividing itself into pro-mosque and anti-mosque forces. Prayers were said. In the front row, Nayyer Islam and his brother Mufti Islam, with 20 or so friends, very deliberately put their hands over their hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Very little time passed before city attorney Randall Bentley summoned attorneys for the mosque into a backroom for negotiations. The bargain that emerged was somewhat disturbing.

In their application, the would-be congregants stated that there was no mosque within 20 miles of City Hall – an important point in a religion where five-a-day prayers are a feature. In fact, a mosque in east Cobb County is 10.8 miles away. A mosque in Marietta is 9.6 miles away.

City officials demanded an apology for the misinformation, and got it from attorney Doug Dillard. Perhaps the council considered accuracy to be of supreme importance – though it is hard to imagine the same officials demanding exact mileage to the nearest Baptist church.

But perhaps, instead, this was payback. Perhaps city officials blamed Dillard for a story that appeared that very morning in the Marietta Daily Journal. Mayor Mark Mathews had told the newspaper and other media outlets that Kennesaw, as a matter of policy, didn’t allow houses of worship in retail spaces. The newspaper reported that, just last July, the council gave unanimous approval to a Pentecostal church in a shopping center. Oops.

The city of Kennesaw’s back-up argument against the mosque was about parking. The shopping center in question is emerging from a foreclosure. Many of the rental spaces are empty, as is most of the parking lot.

Nonetheless, on this private property, the city council demanded that the Muslim congregation give up the first two rows of parking spaces in front of their establishment – in favor of current and future users of all retail space.

Such negotiations are common between landlord and renter. But when the requirement comes from government, there is a back-of-the-bus feel to the demand. The message: Anyone who comes along now or in the future will have precedent over you.

Also, the Muslim congregation had to promise not to sue the city.

Nayyer Islam and his fellows agreed to every one of Kennesaw’s stipulations. Upon which the council rejected their permit on a 4-1 vote. The entire exercise had been a charade.

The Suffa Dawat congregation has until the end of the year to decide whether or not it will file a lawsuit against the city of Kennesaw. Chances are that it will.

Dillard, the group’s attorney, is a kind of religious freedom specialist. He won settlements in those Muslim congregation cases in Alpharetta and Lilburn. It is very likely that, ultimately, Kennesaw will be paying the bill for Dillard’s rendered services. A large one.

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