Intisar Abbasi looks over the rolling farm field that his Muslim sect hopes to buy for a worship center and annual convention site. The Pakistani immigrant knows many in this small town of unpainted barns and church suppers are "troubled by foreigners" and suspicious of Muslims in particular.
If the local people who spoke out against his group's plans at recent public meetings knew more about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, he says, they would drop their opposition.
"It really, really hurts," says Abassi, 60, a retired U.S. Army pharmacist who works on biowarfare vaccines at nearby Fort Detrick. "We were chased out of Pakistan just because of our religious belief, and then to come here and have to put up with this again — it's a double-whammy."
The controversy here is the latest involving Muslim efforts to build or expand mosques and community centers. Local opposition has stalled projects in Pompano Beach, Fla.; Louisville; and Rockaway, N.J. Opponents often cite traffic or loss of tax revenues but, says Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, anti-Muslim bias plays a role.
"It's often couched in terms of parking or traffic or other logistical issues, but often when you scratch the surface you get statements about mosques being centers for terrorism," Hooper says. "It's an unfortunate fact that we have to live with in the post-9/11 era."
Area residents apprehensive
More than 300 people in this town of 6,000 turned out in August for a forum on the plan by the Ahmadis, a sect whose U.S. headquarters are an hour's drive south in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring. They came to hear about a proposed multipurpose recreation center with separate gymnasiums for men and women on two of the tract's 224 acres. The buildings would be used for prayer services, religion classes and athletics by 22 local families.
More contentiously, though, the property would host an annual three-day convention that could draw 5,000 people a day.
Soon after the forum, a planning commissioner proposed a zoning change to bar places of worship, as well as schools and private clubs, from being built on land zoned for agriculture. The measure will be discussed at a public meeting next week.
Among those opposed is Clark Millison, 70, a retired graphic designer. "I don't know that much about Muslims," he says, "but I understand they want to take over the world and want us all dead."
The group has launched a campaign to answer questions and quell concerns. The Ahmadis have held public meetings, run newspaper ads, spoken at churches and knocked on doors. (MORE)