Muslim Arabs battle bigotry and hatred in drive to build a Mosque in suburban Chicago
As most Americans were celebrating their country's independence, some were reminding us that the Declaration of Independence is merely a collection of empty words when it comes to Arab American rights.
This is most apparent as Muslim Arabs living just outside of Chicago in a suburb called Palos Heights that is known for its undaunting battles to preserve the rights of a tree.
But, when a Muslim foundation announced plans to purchase a Christian Church there that was up for sale, residents and elected leaders in Palos Heights vowed to prevent the sale.
Angry residents stood up at public meetings and denounced the Muslims, who they said were "invading" their community. Others said that the Muslim Arabs are "different," and they especially are concerned because they "pray on different days."
But the bigotry that is growing in Palos Heights as this three month battle continues, revealed it's true nature when one of the community leaders who is a leading member of the Catholic Church and organizer of the Day of Prayer which ostensibly is intended to bring people of all religions together, denounced Islam on a nationally televised program as a "false religion."
In response, some of the elected officials who initially lead the fight to prevent the Muslims from opening a Mosque in this Chicago suburb are now embarrassed by the open statements of hostility and bigotry. They voted at a meeting to pay the Al-Salam Mosque Foundation $200,000 to cover their legal fees if they would "retract their purchase offer" and find a new location for their Mosque.
Shocked by the opposition and the hatred, the attorneys for the Mosque Foundation said they are considering the deal, although it reminded many of the efforts by segregationists and racists in the deep American South during the 1950s and 1960s when Blacks were offered money to re-locate to other areas.
Although the bigotry is a concern, what makes an American so confident that they can stand up and publicly attack another people because of their race and their religion without fear that they will be punished like others who have attacked Jews and even Catholics in recent years?
Some say it is the environment where special laws allowing "secret evidence" to be used against Arab Americans encourages this bigotry. Others say it is the bigotry inherent in Hollywood movies which churns out hit movie after hit movie where the Arabs are only portrayed as terrorists and blood thirsty killers. Still others point the same fingers at the bias in the American media and in the New York book publishing establishments which both struggle hard to silence Arab American voices.
And we Christian and Muslim Arabs must also shoulder some of the blame. We live in a country dominated by media and public relations perceptions, and yet we don't know even the basics of communications, which is a sophisticated profession and business.
Palos Heights has a small population of 12,000 people. It is affluent, and a typical American suburb. There are about 600 Muslim Arab families living in Palos Heights, part of a stream of Arab movement that stretches 25 miles from 63rd Street in Chicago Southwest to a suburb called Orland Park. These 600 Arab families account for about 20 percent of the village's population.
While most of these Arab residents are Muslim, the closest Mosque is some three miles north in a suburb called Bridgeview. In contrast, Palos Heights has 20 Christian Churches, including the Christian Reformed Church which is the building the Muslims hope to purchase for $2.1 million.
There are a few more things you should know about this controversy. First, the Christian Reformed Church has been trying to sell the building for more than 5 years, and no one has offered to buy it, except the Al-Salam Mosque Foundation.
Foes of the Mosque said they wanted the Muslims to find a new location, preferably outside of Palos Heights, because they wanted to buy the Church and use it to expand their existing recreation facilities. However, a plan to expand the village's recreation services was rejected, because the residents didn't want to pay the extra taxes that would have to be collected.
If the Mosque is forced to find a new location, the village officials say they will buy the church and convert it to a recreation center, at a cost of $2.1 million. This despite the fact that the village admits it doesn't have the $200,000 they want to pay the Muslims to walk or the $2.1 million to buy the church.
America is a free country. And, as the people of Palos Heights and the surrounding communities have learned, people here are free to hate whomever they wish.
(Ray Hanania is a Palestinian American author and writer. His columns are archived on the Internet at www.hanania.com. He can be reached by email at [email protected])
Topics: Arab Americans, Illinois, Mosque