After two years of planning, public debates, petitions and numerous emails for and against, a Minnesota Islamic center withdrew its application for a new mosque in St. Cloud. The 9.5-acre project would have included a mosque, classrooms, a gym, and would have served about 600 people in the area’s predominantly Somali Muslim community.
At the meeting, which drew more than 500 people, council members made it clear that there was not enough support for the zoning change that was needed to allow the project to move forward.
“I don’t get a hint or whisper of any council member not wanting them to have a mosque in town,” said John Libert, the council’s vice president. “That’s not the issue. It’s location, location, location, and the traffic and the neighborhood having concerns with that.”
To avoid accusations of bigotry or religious discrimination, opponents often cite technical municipal issues to prevent a mosque’s construction or expansion. This tactic is right out of Pamela Geller’s playbook. In an address to the Maryland Conservative Action Network earlier this year, she urged audience members to fight new mosque construction any way they can.
“There are places that these monster mosques are going up on these quiet residential streets,” Geller said. “And the way to play it, the way to play those fights is parking, sewage, city zoning. That’s how you play those fights. You pursue every avenue.” She added, “You’re in a war. You’re in a war and the battlefield is unfair. Freedom’s been under attack for a long time.”
Still, according to Minnesota Public Radio, the president of the Islamic Center of St. Cloud said he thought a revision of the proposal could increase the chances of getting the new mosque plans approved.
“We have to show an example of [compromise], and that will at least satisfy some of the neighbors,” Abdulrashid Salad said. “Our hope is not to just win something — we can all be winners.”
The unfortunate reality is that there are some community members who may not be satisfied with any kind of compromise. This debate is not about traffic flow or zoning. This was a coordinated effort by anti-Muslim activists to claim the community as their own and part of a continued effort to marginalize those seen as outsiders. The tactics ranged from the use of a website by a seemingly innocuous group of concerned citizens to emails and comments made directly to city council members decrying Muslims and Somalis. Geller’s advice and ACT! for America’s imprint are evident.
The St. Cloud Citizens for Reasonable Zoning was once such group that opposed the new mosque. At first glance, the groups website lists detailed concerns that do seem, well, reasonable. They say, “We are concerned neighbors united protect the integrity of residential neighborhoods in and around St. Cloud, Minnesota.”
Fair enough. Their website lays out several specific points to oppose the construction all based on municipal concerns, with absolutely no mention of race or religion. But a closer look reveals that they have one issue and one issue only: to oppose the construction of the Islamic Center of St. Cloud. They also direct readers to a petition that is full of anti-Muslim and anti-refugee comments.
The Central Minnesota Tea Party was a little more direct in its opposition. “Stop the Islamic enclaves into St. Cloud!” a blog entry on their website reads. It also directs readers to the same petition and is signed by Debbie Anderson, who also happens to be the ACT! for America Minneapolis Chapter leader.
“This is really happening. They MUST be stopped,” Anderson writes.
Hecklers in the audience scoffed at the City Council president’s statement at the meeting that “the religion of the group is not the issue tonight.” Anderson was able to repeat her claim that “these communities become seeds of enclaves,” before being cut off.
Local chapters of ACT! for America and similar efforts are becoming increasingly more coordinated and have support in Minnesota by high-profile politicians, including Michelle Bachmann. It is critical that progressive groups and individuals stand with those who are marginalized. It is hard to believe that reasonable people consider hate and fear-mongering to be acceptable. If left unchallenged, these extreme voices in the minority will continue to ring the loudest.