Los Angeles – Opponents of a proposed mosque in a California city collected hundreds of signatures, bombarded city planners with angry letters and emails, and even staged protests with bullhorns and dogs. None of it worked.
The city council has approved plans for the 7 620m², two-story mosque in Temecula after a nine-hour meeting that included rants against Islam as well as technical debates about traffic concerns and flood plains.
The Islamic Centre of Temecula Valley is one of several across the US that has seized the nation’s attention in recent months as controversy raged over plans for a $100-million (about R700 million) mosque and educational centre two blocks from the site of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. A mosque planned in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, has also sparked a dispute.
The Temecula Centre has owned the land for years but didn’t encounter resistance until planning work on the mosque coincided with debate over the New York site, putting 150 Muslim families at the centre of a bitter fight, said Imam Mahmoud Harmoush.
Some residents worried the California mosque would be a Centre for radical Islam and add to traffic woes in the rapidly developing region. The mosque spent more than $17 000 in the past year, which included studies on the 1.74-hectare site to address code concerns raised by its opponents, mosque leaders said.
“It’s amazing how people shift their positions and really don’t listen,” Harmoush said. “They say, ‘Maybe somewhere they are mutilating women, somewhere they are beating their wives’. If somebody did something in Jordan or Pakistan or Iran, that doesn’t mean American Muslims will do it here.”
Opponents said they would meet today to discuss whether to file a legal challenge over a parking issue.
They insisted their protest was not based on religion but instead on concerns about increased traffic on an already overburdened road, and flooding issues that could affect the mosque’s neighbours?– two Christian churches.
In response, the city council modified the construction permit to include traffic reviews every five years and ban the use of external speakers that could be used for calls to prayer.
Those modifications will be helpful for residents who will be closely watching the mosque for problems, said George Rombach, a member of Concerned American Citizens, which was formed to oppose the mosque.
“Part of the victory last night was it gave us more tools to do that – but it’s totally un-American to punish somebody for something they haven’t done,” said Rombach, who said he was not motivated by religious bias.
Mano Bakh, an Iranian-born US citizen who rejected the Islamic faith of his childhood, founded Concerned American Citizens and said he remained suspicious of why so much space was needed to worship.
“A 7620m² building for less than 150 families, where is the logic? That tells you something,” Bakh said. “It is in my opinion a Centre of radicalisation.”
A number of residents sent letters and petitions to the city Planning Commission criticising Islam. One letter included a photograph that purportedly showed a 12-year-old Muslim boy beheading someone, and others included quotations from the Quran, Islam’s holy book.
Those who supported the mosque believed the debate over the Islamic Centre near Ground Zero in New York contributed to the backlash against their project.
The Temecula mosque spent years raising funds for the project, Harmoush said. The families currently worship in a 4 572m² space that is too small, he said.
The mosque held open houses and community forums and invited residents to break the Ramadan fast with them this year to try to lessen opposition to the plan, but it didn’t work, Harmoush said.
The Planning Commission approved the project in December, but Rombach appealed to the City Council, arguing that other houses of worship were held to more stringent land-use requirements – a claim rebuffed by city officials.
Last year, residents flooded the city with letters and attended raucous hearings about the project. At one event last summer, protesters were asked to bring their dogs based on the idea that Muslims believed dog saliva was impure.
The project was approved, despite the protests.
“That’s the beauty of America. It’s a good place to put a mosque anywhere as long as we meet the requirements of the city and the state, all the ordinances,” said Hadi Nael, chairman of the mosque board. “This is a great country – everybody has the freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”