For decades, leaders in Newton County, Ga., have tried to make things easy for anyone who wanted to build a church, with zoning rules that have a “places of worship” exception to streamline the construction process.
But recent plans for a mosque complicated things for county leaders.
About a month ago, word spread that Muslims wanted to build the county’s first mosque on an empty plot at Highway 162 and County Line Road. Since then, a Muslim leader says, a quagmire of bureaucracy and “Islamophobic” public meetings have shined a glaring national spotlight on this county of about 100,000 people, 35 miles east of Atlanta.
The latest wrinkle came this week, when county commissioners, citing security concerns, canceled a meeting that was expected to allow construction of the mosque to move forward.
The concerns arose after a self-described militia group from a neighboring county posted a video on Facebook threatening to demonstrate outside the meeting with guns drawn.
“Newton County has an interest in maintaining peace and public order while conducting county business in a responsible, conscientious, ethical, and professional manner,” the county said in a statement defending the cancellation of the meeting, which had been scheduled for Tuesday. “In this case, a self-made video circulated on social media of a militia group from a neighboring county, [that] may have been trespassing on private property, and exhibiting harassing or violent behavior. Unfortunately in today’s society, uncivil threats or intentions must be taken seriously.”
County leaders shouldn’t allow themselves to be bullied into canceling a public meeting on a controversial issue, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Washington Post.
“A small group of anti-Muslim extremists were able to frighten a government body into canceling a public meeting,” Mitchell said. “That sends a dangerous message about the power of fringe extremists to affect elected officials.”
“American Muslims are accustomed to confronting anti-Muslim bigots like this every single day,” he added. “We’ve seen worse than this. We’ve heard worse than this. If American Muslims can stand up to these threats every day that we walk out of our houses, then a small group of elected officials can do the same thing.”
The controversy began five weeks ago, when a local newspaper reporter discovered that a Muslim group had petitioned the county for permits to build a mosque and a cemetery, Mitchell said.
According to the Newton Citizen, the plan also calls for a burial preparation facility, a school operated by the mosque and 21 acres for residential use.
On Aug. 16, the county board of commissioners called for a moratorium on applications for construction permits “for property to be used as a place of worship.”
A week later, commissioners held a public hearing. They had to move the meeting to the county courthouse to accommodate all the people who signed up to speak. The line stretched out the door and snaked down the sidewalk.
“You heard everything from ‘How do you know there’s not going to be an ISIS training ground?’ to worries about sharia law,” Mitchell said. “It was the greatest hits of Muslim paranoia.”
A reporter for the Economist described the meeting:
Generally after declaring that they were in no way prejudiced, many of the speakers straightforwardly denounced Islam for its supposed violence and extremism. They predicted that Covington — a picturesque town, often used by filmmakers, in a pretty county of around 100,000 people — was set to become a hell of violence and jihad, in which their families would no longer be safe. “They’ll kill Jews, Christians, anyone that don’t believe in Allah,” said one internet-expert. He suggested that his would-be neighbours rip out errant pages in the Koran to prove their good intentions. “If you don’t believe like they do,” said another, “you get your head cut off.” Islam, declared a young man, is “a death cult.” “This is not a religion,” a female church minister insisted. Nobody from the proposed mosque was there to defend it, but one local Muslim was. “I’ve seen more hate tonight,” he lamented, than he had in the eight years he had lived in the neighbourhood. “Get yourself a Muslim friend,” he advised.
But behind the scenes, Muslim leaders were having productive conversations with county and church leaders, Mitchell said.
There would be no Islamic State training camp, they told worried residents, and no sharia law.
According to the resolution, the moratorium is scheduled to end Sept. 21. But a majority of commissioners had publicly said they would vote to remove the moratorium Tuesday.
A local imam offered to slow construction of the mosque and accepted invitations to attend Sunday church services.
“We believe that building bridges with our neighbors is far more important than immediately building a new house of worship and cemetery,” Imam Mohammed Islam, the leader of the Masjid at-Taqwa in Doraville, said in a joint statement with Newton County on Aug. 31.
But not everyone had a change of heart.
The militia’s video surfaced over the weekend, although it has since been taken down, county leaders said. Mitchell said the video showed three militia members flashing guns. One climbed a tree to hang an American flag on the property where the mosque would be built.
Days later, the meeting was scuttled.
The statement from the county said the video was posted by Chris Hill, the leader of the militia, which is called GSF III%.
In a Facebook video Tuesday morning, Hill encouraged militia members to show up at the Newton County courthouse — and to bring their guns — even though the meeting had been canceled.
They began rallying about 6 p.m. Tuesday.
According to Fox 5 Atlanta, about two dozen people showed up to the protest — although organizers had said 150 planned to demonstrate.
One man carried a rifle on his shoulder and wore a bright green shirt that read “Allah is not God Muhammad is NOT his messenger.”
The protesters had strong words about the planned mosque.
“It’s a declaration of war against United States of America,” protester Jim Stachowiak told Fox 5. “Their ultimate goal is to impose Sharia law.”
This post, originally published on Sept. 13, has been updated.