Chicago Tribune: Panic Intersecting: Mosques, Zoning, and Islamophobia

We, as American citizens, have the right to religious freedom. Often people take this right for granted. Muslim Americans do not have this luxury–they have had to fight for this right especially since 9/11. Muslim Americans wishing to construct mosques in Naperville, Willowbrook, Morton Grove, Des Plaines, and across the nation, particularly have faced the kind of scrutiny that Christians, Jews, or other religious groups have not encountered in building houses of worship. What kinds of challenges do Muslim Americans face in their endeavors? Silk Road Rising’s panel discussion on January 19, 2016, entitled “Panic Intersecting: Mosques, Zoning, and Islamophobia,” hopes to create a broader understanding of the difficulties facing Muslim American communities in their wish to exercise their religious freedom. The panel will also serve to provide context for Silk Road Rising’s upcoming production of Jamil Khoury’s new play, “Mosque Alert.” The opposition to constructing mosques in unincorporated Naperville led Khoury to choose the town for the play’s setting.

The national debate sparked by proposals to construct mosques seems a reflection of America’s attitude toward Islam, which has grown increasingly complicated, contentious, and even violent post-9/11 and more recently, in the wake of recent terrorist attacks by groups like ISIL. “Mosque Alert” addresses this issue. The play is inspired by the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy in New York City in 2010, as well as four real cases around the same time, between 2010 and 2012, involving local Islamic organizations attempting to build mosques in DuPage County, such as the Irshad Learning Center. “Mosque Alert” tells the story of three fictional families living in Naperville, Illinois, whose lives are interrupted by a proposed Islamic Center on the site of a beloved local landmark. “Mosque Alert” explores the intersections of zoning and Islamophobia with humor, family drama, and refreshingly blunt honesty. Khoury’s play was developed using an innovative, one-of-a-kind play development process involving civic engagement. Both Muslim and non-Muslim community members participated in civic engagement programs, contributing multiple facets and perspectives on the issue which are reflected in the resulting stage play.

The panel discussion will feature three professionals familiar with the complexities surrounding mosque zoning from different standpoints. One of the panelists, zoning specialist attorney Mark Daniel, has experience representing Muslim Americans looking to build mosques in their communities. He represented The Muslim Educational Cultural Center of America (MECCA) in their endeavor to build a new structure of worship near Willowbrook in unincorporated DuPage County in 2011; the group was denied permission to build a mosque in a matter of months. One given reason? An “oversaturation” of religious institutions in the area. There are several hundred churches in DuPage County. According to WBEZ 91.5, Daniel remarked: “I just haven’t seen it in 16 years of practice, where oversaturation has become an issue. It’s almost as if there’s a suspension of the zoning ordinance for an application, which is something that you really can’t have in these processes.” As Daniel has expertise defending mosques, his comments will provide information on efforts to amend zoning laws, some of which are seemingly proposed in order to make it impossible for mosques to be built in certain areas.

Panelist Phil Robertson, Trial Attorney at Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago), will also share his legal expertise. He is representing mosque zoning cases that have retained CAIR’s expertise, such as the American Islamic Center (AIC) against the City of Des Plaines. Having worked in both public and private sectors, his experience includes real estate, land use and zoning, as well as municipal and government law. Robertson has served as Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois in the General Law Bureau of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office in Chicago on civil rights cases on behalf of many departments and state agencies.

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